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Isak Dinesen 1885-1962

(Pseudonym of Baroness Karen Christentze von Blixen-Finecke; also wrote under the pseudonyms Tania Blixen, Osceola, and Pierre Adrézel) Danish short-story writer, novelist, essayist, memoirist, poet, dramatist, and translator.

The following entry provides criticism on Dinesen's short fiction from 1987 through 2003. For criticism on Dinesen's short fiction...

(The entire section contains 97160 words.)

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Isak Dinesen 1885-1962

(Pseudonym of Baroness Karen Christentze von Blixen-Finecke; also wrote under the pseudonyms Tania Blixen, Osceola, and Pierre Adrézel) Danish short-story writer, novelist, essayist, memoirist, poet, dramatist, and translator.

The following entry provides criticism on Dinesen's short fiction from 1987 through 2003. For criticism on Dinesen's short fiction published prior to 1987, see SSC, Volume 7.

Considered among the most accomplished Danish authors of the twentieth-century, Dinesen drew upon Gothic, Decadent, and Romantic literary conventions for her atmospheric short stories. To augment her often fantastic plots, Dinesen frequently distanced her tales temporally and geographically, using eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, China, and Persia as settings. Her characters are similarly exotic, often appearing as grotesque yet heroic figures, defined by an aristocratic moral code. Caught up in events beyond their immediate understanding, these men and women ultimately perceive themselves as participants in a tragicomedy authored by God.

Biographical Information

Born to wealthy parents in Rungsted, Denmark, Dinesen was ten years old when her father committed suicide. Tutored at home by a series of governesses, she demonstrated an early aptitude for languages, drama, and art. In 1903 she entered the Royal Academie of Fine Arts in Copenhagen to study painting, a pursuit that influenced the intricate descriptive style of her fiction. Dinesen left the Academie a few years later and began writing. In 1907 she published her first tales in the Danish periodical Tilskueron under the pseudonym Osceola, the name of her father's beloved German shepherd dog. After a stay in France and later Italy, Dinesen returned to Denmark and unexpectedly announced her engagement to her second cousin, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. In 1913, with advice and capital provided by Dinesen's family, Blixen journeyed to British East Africa and purchased a six-thousand-acre coffee farm outside Nairobi, Kenya. After her marriage in 1914, Dinesen adjusted well to life in Africa, often going on safari with her husband and socializing with British aristocrats, who later inspired many of her fictional characters. In Africa, Dinesen's farm suffered numerous financial setbacks, and her family dismissed Blixen-Finecke and appointed Dinesen as the sole manager of what became known as the Karen Coffee Company. Eventually the couple divorced. In 1918 Dinesen met Denys Finch Hatton, a free-spirited British pilot and hunter who became her lover and the primary audience for her tales. In 1931, after further financial problems, Dinesen auctioned the farm and, later that year, learned that Finch Hatton had been killed when his plane crashed in Tanganyika. She returned to Denmark and began to write under the pseudonym “Isak Dinesen,” which was a combination of her maiden name and the Hebrew word Isak, meaning “one who laughs.” In her later years, she became an icon of Danish literature, accepting younger authors into her home in Rungsted, Denmark, and giving public lectures despite her fragile health. She died in 1962 from complications from syphilis, which she contracted from her husband early in their marriage.

Major Works of Short Fiction

As with later volumes, Dinesen composed the stories of her first collection, Seven Gothic Tales (1934), in English, then translated them into Danish. Many critics compare Seven Gothic Tales to the Arabian Nights and the Decamaron. Like these and other works based in an oral tradition, Seven Gothic Tales emphasizes action and description rather than overt intellectual analysis. In “The Roads Round Pisa,” for example, Dinesen intertwines tales of religious fanaticism, romantic intrigue, and murder as she chronicles the adventures of a duke in early nineteenth-century Italy. Critics also discern the influence of the oral tradition in Dinesen's assertion that only through storytelling can humanity emulate divinity. In “The Deluge at Norderney,” a cardinal directs his aristocratic companions to give up their places on a boat to peasants during a flood. Stranded in a hayloft as a result, the cardinal suggests that they pass the time by telling their life stories. After each character divulges their innermost secrets, the cardinal reveals that he is in fact a murderous imposter. He then compares himself to Jesus Christ, another man whose elaborately designed ruse—according to the masquerading cardinal—saved the lives of others. While Seven Gothic Tales garnered considerable critical accolades in the United States and Great Britain, Danish reviewers dismissed the collection, citing its lack of social and psychological realism then favored by most Danish writers. In the decades following its publication, however, commentators from Dinesen's homeland have increasingly regarded the volume as among the most original and important contributions to their contemporary literature.

Along with her memoir Out of Africa (1937), Dinesen's next collection of short stories, Winter's Tales (1942), solidified her standing in the Danish literary community. While greatly similar to Seven Gothic Tales, this collection features a simpler narrative style and more easily recognizable settings as evidenced in such stories as “The Young Man with the Carnation” and “The Invincible Slave-Owners.” Perhaps the best-known short story from Winter's Tales is “Sorrow-Acre,” which is based upon a medieval folktale and set in eighteenth-century Denmark. In this story, a lord promises to spare the life of a serf convicted of stealing if the prisoner's mother mows an acre of grain in one day, a task normally performed by three men. Although the lord's enlightened nephew protests, the mother accepts and clears the acre by sunset only to die as she completes the task. Following Winter's Tales, Dinesen composed two more collections of short stories, Last Tales (1957) and Anecdotes of Destiny (1958). Although both collections elicited critical praise, most commentators agree that Seven Gothic Tales and Winter's Tales constitute Dinesen's most significant contributions to the short story genre.

Critical Reception

Evaluations of Dinesen's work have often centered upon her memoirs of Africa, yet most critics assert that her short-story collections will remain her most respected literary achievements. While occasionally impugning the elitist tenor of her stories, commentators laud her artistry, imagination, and wit as enduring aspects of her fiction. They examine her place in Scandinavian literature and outline the various influences on her work. Feminist readings of her short fiction often focus on her biting depictions of misogyny and the oppressive impact of patriarchal culture on women; in fact, commentary on feminist aspects of Dinesen's work reveals a broader debate on the nature of Dinesen's feminism. Exile, cultural displacement, and storytelling are identified as major thematic concerns in her fiction and nonfiction. A few commentators have applied psychoanalytic theory to individual stories, and others have noted her affinity for reinterpreting stories from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Recent critical analyses have focused on the relationship between her fiction and the events of her adventurous life, In fact, Dinesen's life and work has proved to be popular subject for critical study, with more than four hundred scholarly biographical and critical works published about her. She has remained an important figure in Danish literature and her short stories are regarded as a valuable contribution to world literature.

Principal Works

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Seven Gothic Tales [Syv Fantastiske Fortaellinger] 1934

Winter's Tales [Vinter Eventyr] 1942

Last Tales [Sidste Fortaellinger] 1957

Anecdotes of Destiny [Skaebne-Anekdoter] 1958

Osceola (short stories and poetry) 1962

Sandhedens Haevn [The Revenge of Truth] (drama) 1936

Out of Africa [Den Afrikanske Farm] (memoir) 1937

Gengaeldelsens Veje [The Angelic Avengers] (novel) 1944

Farah (novel) 1950

En Baaltale med 14 Aars Forsinkelse [Bonfire Speech Fourteen Years Delayed] (essay) 1953

Skygger paa Graesset [Shadows on the Grass] (memoir) 1960

Ehrengard (novel) 1963

Essays (essays) 1965; also published as Mit livs mottoer og andre essays [enlarged edition], 1978

Breve fra Afrika 1914-31. 2 vols. [Letter from Africa 1914-31] (letters) 1978

Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays (nonfiction) 1979

Samlede (essays) 1985

Ida H. Washington (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Washington, Ida H. “Isak Dinesen and Dorothy Canfield: the Importance of a Helping Hand.” In Continental, Latin-American and Francophone Women Writers: Selected Papers from the Wichita State University Conference on Foreign Literature, 1984-1985, edited by Eunice Myers and Ginette Adamson, pp. 87-96. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987.

[In the following essay, Washington chronicles the influence of Dorothy Canfield on Dinesen's literary career, particularly her assistance in getting Dinesen's collection of short stories, Seven Gothic Tales, published.]

A little known chapter in the life of the Danish author Karen (or Tania) Blixen, who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen, is the vital role played in the launching of her literary career by the American novelist Dorothy Canfield. Without Dorothy's active assistance it is doubtful if Dinesen's first book, Seven Gothic Tales, would have found a publisher, and this was at a time when the Danish writer was so discouraged that she was almost ready to abandon her plans to be a writer. The behind-the-scenes story is contained in unpublished letters in the collections of the University of Vermont and Columbia University.

The relationship between the Danish and American authors developed out of the brotherly assistance of Thomas Dinesen, as he tells in his biography of Tania (whom he called “Tanne”). There he reports:

One day Tanne said: “Listen, Tommy, you've had quite a bit to do with that American authoress, Dorothy Canfield. Couldn't you send my manuscript to her? Perhaps she could help me.” It was true, I had met Dorothy several times and had corresponded a bit with her. I sent her Tanne's work and she replied almost at once.1

The reason for Dorothy's prompt and cordial answer lay in her warm friendship with the young people's aunt, Mary Westenholz. Miss Westenholz had written to Dorothy years before, after reading her novels, a letter that showed such understanding that an active correspondence developed between the Danish reader and the American author and continued throughout their long lives. On one of her many trips to Europe, Dorothy went to Denmark to see Mary Westenholz and was met at the airport by her nephew. So when Dorothy received Tania Blixen's stories accompanied by Thomas Dinesen's letter in August 1932, she answered:

Yes indeed I remember every detail of my short visit to Copenhagen a couple of summers ago, and can still see you as you came down the long wharf to meet our aeroplane when it came in from Lubeck. Any connection of my dear Mary Westenholz would never be forgotten by me, you can be sure of that.2

The bond between the cultured Danish spinster and the American writer had started out on a strictly literary basis and had gradually grown into a personal friendship. Since Dorothy wrote on a rich background in European literature, some aspects of her novels could be better appreciated by a reader who shared this heritage and could see beneath the surface of her writing and appreciate the deeper structure and meaning. In Mary Westenholz she recognized such a reader and responded warmly to her criticism and comments. She therefore looked forward to the Danish visit as a chance to exchange literary views with an old friend. The nephew, Thomas Dinesen, sent to the airport to meet his elderly aunt's guest, was merely an accessory to this visit. Tania's quoted comment that Thomas had had “quite a bit to do with that American authoress” exaggerates their acquaintance at this time beyond its real dimensions. Dorothy was, however, glad to extend a helping hand to a niece of her old Danish friend. She read the tales and reported in the same letter:

I have read your sister's stories with extreme pleasure and interest. I had not thought that anyone could possibly use a language not his own with the sureness, richness, ease and subtlety shown by your sister. They are quite strikingly fine in quality—although I feel, perhaps rather obscure and complicated as to the construction. But that obscurity is a charm for many people, (I am among them,) and I don't think it will be a drawback for those capable of delighting in the unusually fine quality of the writing and of the reflections contained in those really extraordinary tales.

Dorothy's own knowledge of the European and American literary markets and the difficulty of publishing purely “literary” material in the United States led her to be cautious in her predictions of finding a publisher. Some of her own stories, later proclaimed her best (e.g., “The Murder on Jefferson Street” and “The Knot Hole”) had searched long for a publisher. She was, nevertheless, willing to make an attempt to find a publisher for Tania's manuscript. To Thomas she wrote:

A friend of mine, who is one of the best New York publishers, was visiting us when the stories arrived, and hearing my exclamations about the quality of the writing, he began to read them, and has taken them back to New York with him to show them to his partner. He agrees with me that there is little possibility that any magazine could use them serially, (they are too long, and with too little of what is called “narrative interest” for that, we both think) but the book publication by an American publishing house is apt to be rather more profitable to an author than the British publication. Although of course in this miserable year of depression and failure everywhere, it is impossible to predict anything at all. At any rate, if he is interested I will have him write you direct about any proposition he feels able to make.3

This first attempt to interest an American publisher in the tales was not successful, and in December Dorothy sent them to her literary agent Paul Reynolds. With him Dorothy had a long-standing professional relationship. She respected his literary judgment and listened to his advice. In the letter accompanying the manuscripts she wrote:

I'm sending down to you under separate cover some stories written by a Danish connection of mine. They seem to me most original, strange, interesting and rich in texture. Whether any publisher could be found for them is another matter. Would it be asking you too much to look at them and see what you think? If you agree with me that they are worth doing something with—trying, at least—will you see what some publishers think about them, and greatly oblige me? The author, the Baroness Blixen, would like to have them published in magazine form. If not that, in a volume.4

Paul Reynolds doubted whether he would be able to market the strange tales. Dorothy was, however, one of his best and most popular authors. While he was hardly eager to back the stories from Denmark, as the tone of the following letter shows, he agreed to “try” a few publishers:

I have looked at the stories by Baroness Blixen and I do not think they could be published in any magazine. I do not know whether they can be published in book form but I shall try some publishers and see what they say.5

Reynolds' doubts were in tune with her own, so Dorothy thanked him for his efforts and assured him that she was really just trying to do a favor to a relative of a friend. This was in the middle of the depression years, and both realized that few publishers could take a chance on a work that was so uncertain of acceptance by the public. She wrote:

I too don't think really that the Blixen stories could possibly be taken even by the most “literary” of our magazines. And I don't know whether any publisher would be interested in them. Don't put yourself to much trouble about them. The opinion of two or three readers should be sufficient indication, I think. Just pass them on to me when you get them, and we'll call it a day and many thanks. I think it would be well to try the most literary-minded of the publishers—for instance, Knopf—don't you?6

By the end of the year, at least one publisher had seen the stories and had turned them down. Revere Reynolds, who had joined his father's firm, sent Dorothy this report on December 30:

You will remember that you sent us several short stories by Baroness Blixen. I am enclosing a letter from Houghton Mifflin Company about these stories which you may care to send the author.

We are going to try the stories further but as I am sure you realize, we doubt very much if we can induce a publisher to publish them or if they will attract attention and sell to the public if a publisher should bring them out in book form. We do, however, think Baroness Blixen has very real ability.7

The letter from Houghton Mifflin, to which Revere Reynolds refers, is not available, but it was clearly a very soft-toned rejection. At this time Dorothy felt that her obligation to help her friend's niece was essentially fulfilled, and she replied to Revere:

I think too that it is really doubtful whether any publisher in this day will find it possible to consider publishing those stories of the Baroness Blixen's. Won't you please try just one more house and then send them back to me—with the letter from the publisher if you get such a nice one as this. It was exactly what I wanted to send the Baroness, as a proof that I am really trying and that the opinion is general about the possibility of publishing them now.8

This letter was followed by a more definite request to Paul Reynolds:

Just send back those Baroness Blixen stories to me. We've definitely established the fact that everybody thinks them charming—and not publishable at the present time.9

By this time, moreover, Tania Blixen was becoming impatient in Denmark. She decided to abandon the attempt to find an American market and to try to publish the stories with a subsidy in England. On January 22, 1933, she wrote to Dorothy and asked to have the manuscripts returned. In this letter Tania reveals what the publication of the stories means to her and also speaks of an African novel she wants to write, but as a second book, after the stories are published.

I want to write about East Africa, [she says], where I have had for seventeen years what I shall ever feel to be my real life. And in this life of mine I have had one real wild devouring passion, which is my love of the Natives of East Africa,—for their country as well, but most for the people. I can not write about it all yet, I must get it at more of a distance, it would be, now, like writing a book about a recently lost child. And if ever I write about Africa, it could not be helped that the book would contain much bitterness and complaint about the way in which the country and the people have been treated by the English, and in which they have let loose upon it our mechanical and mercenary civilization. It would not be meant as any sort of political propaganda, but would be just the cry of my heart, but it would come out as much as the bitterness against serfdom goes through Turgeniev's “Diary of a Sportsman,”—if I may be allowed to compare a book of mine to one of that great Poet.—And this I hardly dare to do in a first book. It would do better in every way if I could have obtained some sort of name as a writer beforehand. I want to do what I can about the publishing of my stories on this account.—For an African book, if ever I get it written, would mean something very different to me:—I have been writing so far rather on two cylinders, or upon a flute only, but in a book of Africa I should be running a stronger car, and bringing more of an orchestra, I think.10

The book “about East Africa,” to which Tania refers here, did indeed appear later with the title Out of Africa, was enormously successful, and was still later made into a very popular film with the same title. It is a powerful book, for it was written not only with literary skill, but out of the depths of her heart and spirit. However, Out of Africa would, according to the above letter, never have been written if it were not for the strange course of events which followed the first unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher for the Seven Gothic Tales.

Dorothy retrieved the manuscripts from her literary agent and wrote a letter to Tania, praising the tales and expressing the hope that they would find a publisher in England.11 The stories were at her house in Vermont waiting to be wrapped and sent to Denmark, when a summer neighbor, the publisher Robert Haas, dropped in to visit. In an interview many years later, Dorothy recalled the subsequent events:

I brought out these, and I perfidiously did not tell him that I'd already tried them on several other publishers. I said, “Here is a batch of manuscripts sent to me by the nephew of my dear Mary Westenholz.” … Bob Haas took it back to read, and he was as puzzled by them as everyone else had been, but he was interested in the personal side of it, and said, “I'll take it back and see what the other people at Random House think.” And I assume that he didn't tell them any more than I had told him, that he had been stumped by them. And they had a singular experience there. Everybody at Random House—all the readers, and even all the salesmen—was crazy about them. They felt, just as I did, that they were something new and different in quality, and that their strangeness was something precious. So with great enthusiasm they were published by Random House.12

At the request of Robert Haas, Dorothy wrote an introduction for the volume in which she said much the same thing about the strange and exotic quality of the tales that she had in her letters. Her involvement with the Seven Gothic Tales did not end with their publication, however. Dorothy was a member of the original Board of Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club where her opinion carried considerable weight. Selection of a book by the Club guaranteed a large circulation and practically assured financial success and recognition to the author. When the Seven Gothic Tales came before the Board, as Dorothy reported later:

The other judges were carried away by the exotic flavor, and also encouraged by the fact that they had been accepted by Random House, and were very much liked. You know, it takes a little courage to bring out something so different from anything that had ever been done before. … It was sent out with considerable trepidation, and was received with tremendous critical acclaim.13

The Board of Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club was made up of leading authors and critics. These read forthcoming books and chose one each month to recommend specially as “the book of the month.” Board members were instructed to choose, not on the basis of what they thought the public might like, but only books they liked best themselves. With this group of sophisticated readers, the Seven Gothic Tales found great favor, but they sent out their choice with considerable hesitation. The favorable reception of the work was generally a surprise, even to those who had recommended it.

Isak Dinesen's autobiographical novel Out of Africa and several of her later works were subsequently published by Random House and also became Book-of-the-Month Club selections. Her correspondence with Dorothy Canfield continued cordial, and they exchanged letters from time to time until Dorothy's death in 1958.

The Danish author's relationships with others were not always so easy. Tania's aunt, Mary Westenholz, was furious for what she saw as a totally unethical use of her friendship with Dorothy Canfield for her niece's selfish goals. Mary Westenholz had not been consulted about sending Tania's manuscripts to Dorothy, and this action exacerbated long-standing tensions between aunt and niece. Both women were strong-willed, and Tania once remarked, “One of my main reasons for going to Africa was to escape the tyranny of this aunt.”14

Tania also tried the patience of her American publisher Robert Haas. It may have been the heady effect of the success of her first book, or perhaps it was simply the natural aristocratic tendency of the author, which made her haughty and unreasonable with a publisher whose mission, as she saw it, was to serve her interests. She had sacrificed a great deal for the title of “Baroness” and she took the distinction it conferred very seriously. When Tania's niece visited America in 1950, Dorothy therefore wrote to Robert Haas quite hesitantly:

We have with us now for a few days a lovely young Danish visitor, Ingeborg Dinesen. She is daughter to Thomas Dinesen, hence niece of Tania Dinesen Blixen. … Would you like to see her and show her some attention as the niece of the author of Out of Africa? Or are you so out of patience with Tania's airs and graces (well, “graces” is hardly the accurate word) that you don't care if you never are reminded of a Dinesen again? … I'll either direct her to a meeting with you or keep still about your existence. She apparently has never heard a word about her Aunt Tania's American publishers, so you'd be safe.15

When Robert Haas replied with a warm invitation to the niece to visit, Dorothy wrote to him, “I think it sweet of you to bother with this young person, whose only connection is through Tania Dinesen Blixen, whose attitude is so laughably objectionable, seems to me, when she writes you!”16

A few years later, in 1956, Robert Haas asked Dorothy to do what she could to make his dealings with the Danish author easier. In response she wrote a letter to Tania that fairly glowed with admiration and sent a copy to Haas with this accompanying explanation:

You will note in it that whenever the path of comment led to the brink of anything but admiration, I stopped. I feel justified in doing this because I don't think that anything I could say would help you in the ticklish job of “managing” an author as temperamental as she is highly gifted. Your skill in that undertaking is great and equals the need. But do remember what goes without saying that if I can ever be of use to you along those lines, I'm yours to command as always.17

Despite the problems which came to her as a result of reaching out a hand to help a sister writer from across the seas, and her New England annoyance with Tania Blixen's manifestations of aristocratic temperament, Dorothy Canfield never regretted bringing the Danish author's work before the public. Twenty-four years later Dorothy still vividly recalled her first impressions of the Seven Gothic Tales and spoke of them with genuine admiration, saying, “They were very fine, highly colored like a new kind of fruit or a new kind of wine. … I'd never seen anything like them.”18


  1. Thomas Dinesen, My Sister, Isak Dinesen, trans. Joan Tate (London: Michael Joseph, 1975) 127.

  2. Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Thomas Dinesen, August 12, 1932. (Copy in the University of Vermont)

  3. Ibid.

  4. Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Paul Reynolds, December 5, 1932. (In Columbia University)

  5. Paul Reynolds to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, December 8, 1932. (Columbia)

  6. Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Paul Reynolds, dated received December 14, 1932. (Columbia)

  7. Revere Reynolds to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, December 30, 1932. (Columbia)

  8. Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Revere Reynolds, January 2, 1933. (Columbia)

  9. Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Paul Reynolds, dated received January 21, 1933. (Columbia)

  10. Tania Blixen to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, January 22, 1933. (Vermont)

  11. Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Baroness Blixen, April 30, 1933. (Vermont)

  12. Louis M. Starr, 1956, interview for Columbia Oral History Collection 61-63. (Typescript in Vermont)

  13. Starr interview.

  14. Quoted in Judith Thurman, Isak Dinesen, The Life of a Storyteller (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982) 58-59.

  15. Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Haas, October 30, 1950. (Vermont)

  16. Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Robert Haas, November 1, 1950. (Vermont)

  17. Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Robert Haas, August 14, 1956. (Vermont)

  18. Louis M. Starr interview 61.

Ruth Knafo-Setton (essay date spring 1988)

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SOURCE: Knafo-Setton, Ruth. “The Dream World of Isak Dinesen.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 10 (spring 1988): 83-91.

[In the following essay, Knafo-Setton discusses the imaginative stories collected in Seven Gothic Tales, asserting that the volume contains “all her major themes and strengths without heavily indulging in her weaknesses which become more apparent in the later tales.”]

Shrouded in mystery, Isak Dinesen entered the literary world which she then confounded as the timeless seer of an age of transition. Paradox is her very nature. She wrote two kinds of books: detached, gentle and unique reminiscences of her life as a coffee-plantation owner in Kenya (Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass), and the four books of tales, wild and grotesque, tragically striving for an impossible classical unity. She stands on the lonely threshold of modernism and the nouveau roman, clutching desperately to the vanishing ideal she comes to symbolize: that “deep and dangerous little figure, consolidated, alert and ruthless—the storyteller of all the ages.” (“A Consolatory Tale.”)1

She is no Grimm nor Andersen—the fairy-tale genre is a means of preserving and communicating her dream world intact, with not a hint of compromise to “authenticity” or pain. Her characters are denied the privilege of feeling either profound misery or ecstatic joy. No one can read Grimm without a sense of horror, or Andersen without a touch of melancholy. Dinesen, by contrast, suffers the limitation of existing on only one plane—the plateau where conflict is not allowed. Her universe is a tiny mirror, reflecting the glorious lights and brilliant facets of Shakespeare, the prophets of the Old Testament, the Greek poets and Goethe, among others. With wisdom, discretion and taste, she conveys her own unique comprehension of the excitement and courage of these great writers, transforming and assimilating their philosophies and techniques into a strangely seductive, world-weary vision full of wit and wry humor that becomes her trademark. Dinesen echoes the timbre of genius, of immortality, and she cannot help but share its radiance:

She had in her the magnet, the maelstrom quality of drawing everything which came inside her circle of consciousness, into her own being and making it one with herself.

(“The Monkey”)

To enter the world of Isak Dinesen is to take part in an illuminating, imaginative game—perhaps much like chess, with a master—that deepens, mimics, distorts and enchants. We are traveling through a lotus-land, vivid and golden, desirable without touch, as is the world of dreams. She is an aristocrat in the pure, idealized sense. Her creations are peerless leading men and women emitting successive tragic emotions, sculptured representations of timeless moments already immortalized by the pen of Shakespeare or echoing the rolling thunder of the Old Testament prophets. They are tantalizing creatures, modelled as they are only on the masterpieces of literature that have survived the ages of the world, escaping from artifice to reality, and extending far outside the realm of books in order to directly affect the ways in which men interpret the mysterious and wild vagaries of Nature. Man is lost without them; they are his guides, giants, on a path trodden by midgets. And Dinesen, in glorifying and illuminating their wisdom, is showing how their philosophy can work: life can be reordered and channeled by the planned foreknowledge and perfection of Art.

She cannot drive reality “out of Africa” which, indeed, draws its inspiration from events in her own life. In her tales, however, Dinesen becomes the consummate artist who, modifying and transcending experience through the use of perspective and discrimination, attains the childlike wisdom and sibylline presence of “that fascinating and irresistible personage, perhaps the most fascinating and irresistible in the whole world: the dreamer whose dreams come true.” (“The Dreaming Child”) Her fantaisies macabres (a phrase she herself uses) are permitted to roam free of reality. The pattern is complete in her tales, viewed without the paralysis of insecurity about what is yet to come: the vivid mosaic has been pieced together in a way that is satisfactory to the author; life has been given meaning.

It is for this reason that I believe the most fruitful approach to the art of Dinesen is through her tales, where imagination reigns. And of all her tales, the most outstanding are the Seven Gothic Tales, which contain almost all her major themes and strengths without heavily indulging in her weaknesses which become more apparent in the later tales. The Gothics, toward which the reader who knows Dinesen's work feels a certain growing fondness and an almost dizzying reverence, are fearless, unrestrained, devastating and flamboyant. In her later tales, the storyteller's voice becomes more removed from his narrative, more impersonal and classically detached; the story wins at the expense of the characters.

In the Gothics however, her characters are still very much alive; this is perhaps nowhere so evident as in the first of the Seven Gothic Tales, “The Deluge at Norderney,” which will provide the central focus of this essay. In this tale, one has the unique privilege of witnessing the unforgettable performances of Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag, the last of a dying breed, true nobility, and Kasparson, the tragic actor. Rambling, grotesque and exciting, “The Deluge at Norderney” employs many of Dinesen's favorite themes. In this tale, the all-powerful sea is the impetus, the catalyst, spurring on the inevitable Moment with which we are concerned. There is a flood, a “grim joke” on the part of nature because it occurs in the middle of summer, later known as the Cardinal's Flood—because of that saintly man's legendary courage in the face of the deluge:

As he walked down to the boat, and the people from the bath dispersed before him, some of the ladies suddenly and wildly clapped their hands. They meant no harm. Knowing heroism only from the stage, they gave it the stage's applause. But the old man whom they applauded stopped under it for a moment. He bowed his head a little, with an exquisite irony, in the manner of a hero upon the stage.

The Cardinal's servant, Kasparson, has already been killed in the flood, and the old man does not hesitate upon being faced with the challenge of bringing heroism to real life—he stays behind in a barn with three other people, whom he has inspired with his courage and selflessness, in order that four peasants may be saved.

These elaborately contrived machinations are simply a prelude to the Moment: the reader may now begin his whirl inwards, led by Dinesen, into the heart of the tale. Outdoors, the roaring waters ceaselessly, relentlessly, approach the barn; it is here, in a hayloft with flickering candlelight, that the stage is set. This will be a night like no other night for the four saviours, aware that they will probably be dead by morning. But now, curiosity dominates: it is time to see with whom they will pass what may be the last night of their lives:

As if they had been four marionettes, pulled by the same wire, the four people turned their faces to one another.

The Cardinal is obviously the most important character in the piece; in describing him, Dinesen could be setting forth the precepts of her own literary style:

To his great power of imagination he joined a deep love of law and order. Perhaps in the end these two sides of his nature came to the same thing: to him everything seemed possible, and equally likely to fall in with the beautiful and harmonious scheme of things.

Balancing out the presence of the old man is that of a young man by the name of Jonathan Maersk. There are two women to complete the cast: the brilliantly unforgettable Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag, who is, without a doubt, equal to her fantastic name which belongs to Dano-Swedish nobility (translation: sly or witty night and day; her family motto is “the sour with the sweet”). “She was close to sixty years, and her mind had for some years been confused for she, who was a lady of the strictest virtue, believed herself to be one of the great female sinners of her time.” Miss Malin who is accompanied by her niece, the beautiful, silent Calypso, quickly recognizes her role, that of hostess, and makes it her own, as only a diva can:

During the night she performed her role, regaling her guests upon the rare luxuries of loneliness, darkness, and danger, while up her sleeve she had death itself, like some lion of the season, some fine Italian tenor, out of the reach of rival hostesses, waiting outside the door to appear and create the sensation of the night.

It is evident, however, that the Cardinal is in control; his strength is concealed for the greater part of the tale, but he is Dinesen's spokesman—he is the “Arbiter of the Masquerade,” God within the circle of art, the creator of the story, ultimately the creator within the creator, a variation on the eternal Chinese-box theme, one of Dinesen's favorite metaphors for the unraveling of mysteries in her tales. Similarly, it is the story that can be made out of the characters that is immortal, not the people alone. Until they have found their roles and are ready for their moments of glory, they are of no interest to the author. Dinesen further explores this theory in “The Cardinal's First Tale”:

… divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story … For within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of each of them: ‘Who am I?

While “the immortal story immortalizes its hero,” the personal anguish of modern literature demystifies the hero and leaves him alone, “all naked, turned into an individual.” Characters without a story are like a painting without a background—they roam sadly, drifting uselessly through a life that never seems to take them seriously or laughingly, but simply bored, vomits them up; quite the opposite of the lively company encountered in “Deluge” who are seen “clearly, as if luminous and on a higher plane, and at the same time they may not look quite human, and you may well be a little afraid of them.” Remote and inscrutable, Dinesen's characters awaken the reader's curiosity and admiration. The dialogue between the Cardinal and Miss Malin that continues almost nonstop until daybreak is constantly bewitching and unique. When the Cardinal offers the suggestion that God may want truth from human beings, Miss Malin, surprised, replies:

‘Why, he knows it already, and may even have found it a bit dull … I, on the contrary, have always held that the Lord has a penchant for masquerades. Do you not yourself tell us, my lord spiritual, that our trials are really blessings in disguise? And so they are. I, too, have found them to be so, at midnight, at the hour when the mask falls …’

All of Dinesen's philosophy circles around the “penchant for masquerades”; it is considered unsporting to end the game, to allow the curtain to fall, without fulfilling one's role, for this is the character's quest for immortality. The paradoxical clue to all of her tales can be found in the Revenge of Truth, “that most charming of marionette comedies,” written by Dinesen in her teens, that forms the core of the most frustrating, rambling Gothic Tale, “The Roads Round Pisa”:

Everybody will remember how the plot is created by a witch pronouncing, upon the house wherein all the characters are collected, a curse to the effect that any lie told within it will become true …

At the end the witch appears again, and on being asked what is really the truth, answers: ‘The truth, my children, is that we are, all of us, acting in a marionette comedy. What is important more than anything else in a marionette comedy, is keeping the ideas of the author clear. This is the real happiness of life, and now that I have at last come into a marionette play, I will never go out of it again. But you my fellow actors, keep the ideas of the author clear. Aye, drive them to their utmost consequences.’

The Cardinal, in “The Deluge at Norderney,” echoes the witch: “That alone is what we have ever longed for and named immortality.” Miss Malin, too, is representative of the entire Dinesenian gallery of extraordinary beings who find truth in the act of comedy: “No danger could possibly put fear into her, nor any anguish of conscience spoil her peace.”

One would certainly not expect second-rate performances from such characters; and indeed, on this night, after having judged God, they follow the lead of the Cardinal and proceed to judge themselves, unafraid to drive his ideas “to their utmost consequences.” With his cryptic remark,

‘So speaketh the Arbiter of the Masquerade: “By thy mask I shall know thee”’,

he sets the tone for the rest of the tale. The magic circle of art grows smaller and the reader enters the theater within a theater, multiple tales within a tale—Dinesen's art of rhythm a movement whirling us around in a dizzying pirouette.

The elimination of the supporting characters due to their whirlwind marriage—completely engineered by Miss Malin—causes a narrowing motion as the spiral nears the top; we spin through more conversation between Miss Malin and the Cardinal, until we reach the zenith, the innermost spiral, the Cardinal himself. Unwinding the bandages wrapped around his head, he drops his mask and reveals his true identity:

‘My name,’ said the man, ‘is Kasparson. I am the Cardinal's valet.’

He reminisces about the many, varied experiences of his life. He is gifted in ballon, that favorite Dinesenian symbol, implying those of her protagonists who are endowed with boundless imaginations, who never allow life to limit them to a mere single reality:

‘I had to an unusual extent what in the technique of ballet is termed ballon, which means the capacity for soaring, for rising above the ground and the laws of gravitation.’

He also confides that he is the bastard son of that Duke of Orleans “who changed his name to that of Egalité” (thus making him the brother of Louis-Philippe, the essence of bourgeoisie). “The bastard of Egalité! Can one be more bastard than that, Madame?”

The Malin tactfully changes the subject, inquiring both about his motives for killing the Cardinal and the reason for deceiving her until this moment. Kasparson explains that if the Cardinal had sacrificed his life for him, he would have been deprived of his raison d'être. Through that favorite Dinesenian strategem, the inset tale, the Cardinal-Kasparson illustrates that there are “worse things than perdition.” The paradoxical results of the doctrine of redemption form the contents of this tale that he names, “The Wine of the Tetrarch.” It is the account of a moving encounter between the Apostle Peter, “so deeply absorbed in the thought of the resurrection that he did not know whether he was walking upon the pavement or was being carried along in the air” and a melancholy stranger who complains bitterly that all wines have lost their flavor since the death of Jesus. Angry and perplexed, the man feels that Jesus, sacrifice has deprived him of the right to bear his own burden. Lost in his sorrow, Peter is curious about the stranger's belligerent complaint that he has been deprived of his cross to bear. He asks the man his name:

‘The stranger was already standing in the door. He turned around and looked at Peter with hauteur and a slight scorn. He looked a magnificent figure. “Did you not know my name?” he asked him. “My name was cried all over the town. There was not one of the tame burghers of Jerusalem who did not shout it with all his might. ‘Barabbas,’ they cried, ‘Barabbas! Barabbas! Give us Barabbas.’ My name is Barabbas. I have been a great chief, and, as you said yourself, a brave man. My name shall be remembered.”

‘And with these words he walked away.’

As in all of Dinesen's tales, the central motif here, too, concerns the problem of identity. Without his cross, Barabbas has been forced to renounce his destiny, an impossible dilemma for a character seen through Dinesen's eyes:

As the song is one with the voice that sings it, as the road is one with the goal, as lovers are made one in their embrace, so is man made one with his destiny, and he shall love it as himself.


Christ died for Barabbas, a bitter pill for a proud man to swallow. Thief or prophet—these are only labels masking reality. To Dinesen, the life of Jesus is a manifestation of the Lord's “penchant for masquerades”: He played the role of a man for thirty years, after which he took the burden of every man on his back and by his mortal death, freed them from their sins. Barabbas has been robbed of his role by God.

Kasparson likens himself to Barabbas in the tale, except that he did not allow his destiny to escape him; the moment when he murdered the Cardinal was his moment of illumination. “In regard to the world, mankind in general and his own fate, he was from now on the conqueror. They would have to give themselves up to him …” (“Peter and Rosa”) Kasparson justifies his action to Miss Malin:

‘I told you: I am an actor. Shall not an actor have a role? If all the time the manager of the theater holds back the good roles from us, may we not insist upon understudying the stars? The proof of our undertaking is in the success or fiasco. I have played the part well. The Cardinal would have applauded me, for he was a fine connoisseur of the art’ …

‘The only thing,’ he went on after a pause, ‘which he might have criticized is this: he might have held that I overdid my role. I stayed in this hayloft to save the lives of those sottish peasants, who preferred the salvation of their cattle to their own. It is doubtful whether the Cardinal would ever have done that, for he was a man of excellent sense. That may be so. But a little charlatanry there must needs be in all great art, and the Cardinal himself was not free from it.’

Kasparson is not a man to shun multiple roles. He has followed the advice of Pellegrine Leoni in “The Dreamers”: “Be many people.” He tells Miss Malin about some of his masks: he has been, at various times, a courtesan, a barber, a printer of revolutionary papers in Paris, a dog-seller in London, a slave-trader, a murderer, Kasparson, and today, the Cardinal. The irony underlying his sacrifice to save the peasants reveals yet another layer, another mask. Kasparson has been playing God as well: he has manipulated fate and made of it this tale, “The Deluge at Norderney.” He has offered his life, the other three following his heroic example, in order to save other lives, and possibly deprive others of their crosses. The doctrine of atonement is being re-enacted once again. Kasparson has played the role of Barabbas as well as that of Christ; to his great repertoire of roles, he has added the part of God by echoing the act of Christ in redeeming all mankind.

‘Well,’ said Miss Malin after a pause,’and did you enjoy playing the role of the Cardinal when you had your chance at last? Did you have a pleasant time?’

‘As god liveth, Madame, I had that,’ said Kasparson, ‘a good night and day. For I have lived long enough, by now, to have learned, when the devil grins at me, to grin back. And what now if this—to grin back when the devil grins at you—be in reality the highest, the only true fun in all the world? And what if everything else, which people have named fun, be only a presentiment, a foreshadowing, of it? It is an art worth learning then.’

Dinesen's characters welcome with open arms the sublime challenge “that eternity could become their everyday.” Though many of her characters are based on real people that she met in her crowded life, her literary portrayals of them are so undeviating and idealized that they remain statues, forever frozen in the power of their roles, in the excitement of the moment, eyes glittering with inhuman fire through the tiny holes of a mask. Kasparson and Miss Malin are as unforgettable as their story; in fact, they are their story. But their omnipotence on stage, within the magic circle of art, which has immunized them from the degradation of reality, is nearing an end:

A dark figure, like that of a long thick snake, was lying upon the boards, and a little lower down, where the floor slanted slightly, it widened to a black pool which nearly touched the feet of the sleeping girl. The water had risen to the level of the hayloft.

Dinesen releases her hold on them with the break of dawn:

The old woman slowly drew her fingers out of the man's hand, and placed one upon her lips.

A ce moment de sa narration,’ she said,’ Scheherazade vit paraître le matin, et, discrète, se tut.

With these words, the tale ends, and Miss Malin proves herself an outstanding member of the immortal commedia dell' arte troupe populating the pages of Dinesen. Miss Malin's allusion to Scheherazade serves a double purpose. First of all, Scheherazade is perhaps the ultimate Dinesenian heroine, barricading herself, as she does in the Arabian Nights, seeking refuge within the “magic circle of poetry,” for not just one night, but for a thousand and one nights. Secondly, her reference to silence indicates both the characters' impotence in the face of the dawning reality and Dinesen's final goal as a storyteller. Where the storyteller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Theatrical and otherworldly as Kasparson and Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag are, somehow, miraculously, they live. Dinesen has been true to her characters, and they have repaid her in kind: in the end, silence speaks.


  1. All of Isak Dinesen's tales quoted in this essay refer to the following editions:

    ———Seven Gothic Tales (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1934). “The Deluge at Norderney,” “The Monkey,” “The Roads Round Pisa,” “The Dreamers.”

    ———Winter's Tales (New York: Random House, 1942). “The Dreaming Child,” “Peter and Rosa,” “Sorrow-Acre,” “A Consolatory Tale.”

    ———Last Tales (New York: Random House, 1957). “The Cardinal's First Tale.”

Sara Stambaugh (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14446

SOURCE: Stambaugh, Sara. “Misogyny.” In The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen: A Feminist Reading, pp. 83-107. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Stambaugh examines Dinesen's portrayals of the effects of patriarchal Christianity on men and women in her short fiction.]

Dinesen's opposition to Christianity appears not only in the stories I have discussed but is also reflected elsewhere, in “The Caryatids,” for example, in the story of the priest, Father Bernhard, who opposes the gypsies but ultimately capitulates to them. Her general attitude is expressed by Boris of “The Monkey” as he avoids Pastor Rosenquist: “beware … of people who have in the course of their lives neither taken part in an orgy nor gone through the experience of childbirth, for they are dangerous people” (SGT [Seven Gothic Tales], p. 145). Her opposition to Protestant denigration of the flesh is also reflected in her reactions against nineteenth-century writers whose statements or plots she apparently read as denigrating women.1 Certainly the stories she wrote throughout her career illustrate feminist readings of her male predecessors. Her work is filled with biting analyses of misogyny, almost always countered by the pagan values she considered more humane.

As I indicated earlier, patriarchal religion is deleterious to men as well as women. The effects upon men are particularly reflected in the double standard practiced so casually by Dinesen's nineteenth-century male characters. Their Pauline roles as masters of their wives also encourage the blind egotism which blackens Dinesen's least sympathetic characters, Prince Pompilio of “The Cardinal's First Tale” and Mr. Clay of “The Immortal Story,” for example, whose mercantile values Dinesen associates with Christian ones in “The Dreamers.” Lincoln Forsner's rich British father is a Bible-reading captain of industry who “[feels] himself God's one substitute on earth. Indeed,” says Lincoln, “I do not know if he was capable of making any distinction between his fear of God and his self-esteem.” As might be expected, the enemy he battles is his Dionysian attraction to music and Italian opera (SGT, pp. 280-81).2

In Dinesen's tales, however, the effects of patriarchal Christianity fall most heavily upon the women, who, for example, remain invisible to the men around them because the Christian idealism of such characters as Johannes Søeborg of “The Last Day,” the Bishop of “The Supper at Elsinore,” or the parson of “Peter and Rosa” prevents them from seeing women as anything but stereotypes. Although Christianity is not exclusively responsible for the misogyny suffered by so many of Dinesen's female characters, Dinesen does not hesitate to make the association specific.

If a number of her stories present Christianity in conflict with life, at least one presents the conflict as especially between Christian fear of life, art, and experience and the Dionysianism of the natural woman. “Alkmene” reflects a popular nineteenth-century motif, that of the royal child who is raised by foster parents and who must seek his real parentage and identity. In using it Dinesen may have in mind Thomas Carlyle's Diogenes Teufelsdröckh or Wordsworth's more famous foundling of the “Immortality Ode”:

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a mother's mind,
                    And no unworthy aim,
          The homely nurse doth all she can
To make her foster-child, her inmate man,
          Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.(3)

Alkmene is a royal child whose name reflects that she is a fitting consort for the king of Olympus.

Her intrinsic royalty and her conflict with the Christian values of her foster parents, a parson and his wife (Alkmene's “homely nurse”) is the subject of the story. Her royal nature appears less in her symbolic presentation as royal bastard, however, than in her fearlessness, her response to the sea, her love of dancing, her closeness to nature—to birds especially—and her fondness for snakes. Her eyes and her frankness are reminiscent of Viggo's hawk-girl of “The Last Day” and of other hawklike goddess figures. In one of several attempts to escape her stifling Christian home, like Maggie Tulliver she runs away and tries to join the gypsies, who here and elsewhere represent a pagan life divorced from Christianity.

Alkmene's Christian education consists of being taught fear, a lesson she resists until she is overcome by the stifling goodness of her foster parents. Thus Alkmene capitulates to the hatred of life which Nietzsche attributes to Christianity and symbolically kills herself.4 It is not surprising that just before the execution he has escorted her to, her friend Vilhelm has the sudden perception “that the forces amongst which I had been moving were mightier and more formidable than I had guessed” (WT [Winter's Tales], p. 217). He does not realize that the powerful Christian world is about to slay the girl's pagan nature in a fulfillment of her predictive Christian name, Mene: “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it” (Daniel 5:26).

In the coda to the story Alkmene is a hard and miserly shepherd, as the parson had been a shepherd to his flock. Langbaum refers to the money the girl now hoards, which Dinesen probably intends as another reference to the underlying motif of the royal foundling, for earlier, around the time of her puberty, Alkmene had been given “an inheritance” by her royal father, which frightens the girl's Christianized mother because of its greatness, which Gertrud thinks “must needs spring from a demonic source.” As the parson tells Vilhelm, such gold “becomes a symbol. … It lies dormant … awaiting the hand which is to turn it into reality” (WT, p. 213). Just as the parson had earlier rejected the call of the arts and his chance for greatness, Alkmene's parallel choice is reflected in her hoarded money, the royal heritage of her womanhood which she refuses to spend because of the Christian values which have conquered her.5

Christian values are also responsible for the sexual repression suffered by so many of Dinesen's female characters, the subject of “The Dreaming Child,” for example, which immediately precedes “Alkmene” in Winter's Tales and shares the motif of the royal child. In describing Jakob Vandamm, the husband of the couple who adopt the child of the title, Dinesen explains the mechanism of the repression which afflicts the wife, Emilie. Both husband and wife accept conventional values, and Jakob has learned of sex through brothels, while he has idealized his wife, whose image he has etherealized “like a doll or an icon.” In order to meet his expectations, his equally conventional wife accepts his values, which demand a strict separation between sex and love (WT, p. 164). Emilie agrees to adopt the child, for example, because she finds sex repellent, and can thus avoid pregnancy. Ironically, however, Jakob is bored by the perfection which matches his ideal and philanders a bit. Moreover, he is basically repelled by the angelic image he has evoked. Dinesen comments, “In this way he found himself somewhat in the sad and paradoxical position of the young lover who passionately adores virginity” (WT, p. 174).

Although both husband and wife are treated sympathetically, the story focuses upon Emilie, whom the adopted child, Jens, teaches to accept sex as one of the gifts of love.6 His sojourn with the Vandamms is framed by two conflicting descriptions of Emilie's early love encounter with the sailor Charlie Dreyer, who tried to make love to Emilie in a moonlit garden. Emilie has already been alarmed by her own emotions and is horrified at his violation of the angelic image she has been trained to. As a result, she rejects him and, like the Christian Philippa of “Babette's Feast,” symbolically locks the gate against her own sexuality. The role of the Dionysian child Jens is to teach her to unlock it.

Like Alkmene, Jens is presented as an embodiment of life, perhaps as the child of the eternal mother as presented in Harrison's study, as the Danish title, “The Divine Child,” may indicate. He has been trained by an idealistic, sibyllike old maid to believe in his royal heritage,7 and like Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, the child of Wordsworth's Ode, and Alkmene, he is a child of God. As a result, his attitude to life is Nietzschean, as the rigid Emilie realizes. He is also a cupid, who transforms the Vandamm household into “the abode of divinities” (WT, p. 172). There is some question about why the child dies. My answer is that he dies in late March in his role as fertility god in order to bring about the resurrection of life and Emilie's acceptance of sexuality, which she has alienated herself from by accepting her nineteenth-century role.

The child's death brings about Emilie's epiphany, presented in a final, lyrically described stroll through the Charlottenlund beechwoods in May. Husband and wife walk “into a green world” where they are surrounded by bird song and where Emilie picks up a broken bird shell. The shell is not mentioned again but is symbolically restored by the lesson she tells her husband that she has learned from the wisdom of the child and through the renewal of life with the spring. The central aspect of that lesson is to accept sex as an aspect of love, the reason she tells Jakob about her love for Charlie Dreyer and claims that instead of rejecting, she accepted him and that Jens was her own illegitimate child by the sailor. She speaks of her “great danger” when, in her reversed description of the love encounter, she almost rejected him (WT, p. 185). What she tells her husband, however, is not only that she has learned an important lesson but that he must learn to see her as a sexual being and no longer as an idealized doll or icon, the reason she tells him, “It would be better … to both you and me if you would believe me,” the reason as well why Jakob agrees with her in the final line of the story, “‘Yes, my dear,’ he said, ‘that is true’” (WT, p. 187).

“The Dreaming Child” is unusual among Dinesen's stories in that it implies a course of future events, a happy and harmonious future in which husband and wife live together in mental and sexual harmony, very likely having the children previously denied them in their nineteenth-century marriage.

Elsewhere Dinesen presents less happy pictures of nineteenth-century misogyny, for example, in her horrifying description of the young Countess Calypso's childhood in “The Deluge at Norderney,” perhaps her most devastating presentation of the subject. Of the four characters stranded in a hayloft and waiting to drown, both Miss Malin and the young Countess have been victims of specifically Christian sexual repression, while the young Jonathan Mærsk is also a victim who has been forced by a conventional world to conform to a false image, as the Cardinal has as well.

The experience of both the boy and Calypso are the subjects of lengthy inset tales, although the effect of the boy's is to emphasize the even worse experience of Calypso. Like many of Dinesen's women, the young Mærsk has not been seen for himself but has been forced to conform to a false image, here, to the reflection of his biological father. His stepfather, however, a wise old sailor, has prescribed a saltwater cure for him and predicted that when the boy has undergone it, he will return for Jonathan and take him “into the open sea” (where all four characters are indeed taken at the end of the story [SGT, p. 39]).8

The world of womenly men which has caused Jonathan's suffering is only a pale reflection of that described in the girl's tale, for she has been raised by an effete poet whom Miss Malin calls the Count Seraphina, and Calypso has come within a hair's breadth of castration in his misogynistic, homosexual world. As his description makes clear, the Count totally opposes natural life in any of its manifestations but particularly where it is strongest, in female sexuality. Thus, as the girl begins to mature, he first attempts to “[transform] that drop of the devil himself, a girl, into that sweet object nearest to the angels, which was a boy” (SGT, p. 43).

When the girl nonetheless fulfills her biological destiny and becomes a beautiful young woman, “with a shiver [the Count] turned his eyes away from her forever, and annihilated her. … Since then she has not existed.”9 Miss Malin subsequently refers to Calypso as “the annihilated girl” and describes her resolve to cut off her hair and breasts, the symbols of her sexuality.10 The subsequent description of Calypso's midnight attempt to mutilate and desexualize herself with a sharpened ax is likely to inspire female readers with the same fear expressed by the old campaigner in “Copenhagen Season” when he describes his terror when he was shaved for crabs.

The girl is saved from mutilation, however, when she sees a representation of women in nature and looks at herself in the mirror, apparently inspired by “The god Dionysos himself, who was present, [and who] looked at her, laughingly, straight into the eyes.” Consequently, Calypso can see her uncle as a pathetic stuffed doll and leave his house of perversions. She walks out into the life-giving rain like the goddess Ceres, singing a hymn in praise of her own divinity. It is her aunt, Miss Malin, who brings her to Norderney for a saltwater cure like the young man's (SGT, p. 48).

I have emphasized Calypso's story not only because it represents a chilling example of misogyny but because it lies at the center of “The Deluge at Norderney” and, as Juhl and Jørgensen have noted, clarifies the roles of the other two characters. Miss Malin, for example, parallels Calypso in that she too suffered sexual repression in her youth, hers specifically associated with the strict Protestantism she learned from a pious Moravian governess. Having passed menopause, however, she is no longer held to the conventional role of nineteenth-century woman and thus is finally free to express the sexuality at the heart of her nature.

Having dropped her mask of respectability, Miss Malin now acts as guardian of female mysteries into which she can initiate others. Like the other wise old women in Dinesen's tales, she is both witch and sibyl. She is also “a successful creator” and a Scheherazade (SGT, p. 70). Moreover, she is a skilful dancer and even at her most grotesque has a birdlike grace as well as a sympathy for caged birds. Finally, she becomes the loathly lady of medieval myth, who grants the Cardinal an initiatory kiss with the words, “montez au ciel!” (SGT, p. 78). It is especially fitting, therefore, that the Cardinal passes to her the role of master of ceremonies in a story which describes his initiation after his recognition of his own nature and of the God he serves.

In many ways the Cardinal is the central figure of the story because of his growth and change. In this “hour of the falling of the mask,” as he calls it (SGT, p. 27), his story comes last as he recognizes that he is not the Cardinal but the rogue and criminal Kasparson, apparently because, like young Jonathan, he has finally seen his previous role as a false image imposed upon him by a Christian world.

Like Cardinal Salviati of “The Cardinal's First Tale,” this Cardinal presents two sides, an official, Christian one and a Dionysian one which allies him to art, music, and reverence for life. Both Cardinals, of course, are Roman Catholics, apparently because Dinesen sees Catholicism as less hostile to life than Protestantism.11 When the lady in black asks Cardinal Salviati if he knows which god he serves, the action of that story indicates that he is a servant of Dionysus. “The Deluge at Norderney” presents Cardinal Hamilcar von Sehestedt's realization that he serves the same master.

A pagan Holy Spirit is a fifth and dominant character in the story. It is the subject of the opening pages of the story, in which Dinesen explains that in spite of the current fashionable interest in the sea, such romantic fascination is “coquetry with the dangerous powers of existence,” which break out in the flood that initiates and ends the story. As the narrator points out, the summer flood has “the character of a terrible, grim joke” and thus is an example of “the play of the Lord, which is alone divine,” as the Cardinal remarks (SGT, pp. 1-4, 14). As the water finally reaches the loft, it resembles a snake, another figure Dinesen is fond of using to reflect her view of the divine force.

Appropriately, much of the conversation between Miss Malin and the Cardinal concerns the nature of God and points more and more clearly to a rivalry between two opposing deities, “the legitimate king,” whose throne has been usurped, and a petty spirit embodying the spirit of bourgeois oppression of both men and women. When Miss Malin asks whether the Cardinal “[believes] in the fall of man,” he replies that not man but God has fallen and given way to “an inferior dynasty of heaven” comparable to the bourgeois King Louis Philippe, although artists, he says, continue to worship “our departed Lord, the great adventurer.” Finally, the Cardinal predicts the end of the current divine dynasty and the implied return of his legitimate monarch (SGT, pp. 55-57). Earlier he has described that day: “the hour in which the Almighty God himself lets fall the mask. And what a moment! … Heaven will ring and resound with laughter, pure and innocent as that of a child, clear as that of a bride, triumphant as that of a faithful warrior who lays down the enemy's banners at his sovereign's feet, or who is at last lifted from the dungeon and the chains, cleared of his slanderer's calumnies!” (SGT, pp. 26-27). The heaven he has in mind, however, is not a bourgeois Christian one but the hell where, he says, he and Miss Malin will “cut a finer figure” (SGT, pp. 58-59).

The point at which the Cardinal comes to realize that the true divine king is Dionysus is not clear, but early in the story Dinesen hints at the Cardinal's Dionysian nature. Although hitherto subjected to the authority of the Church, it is recognized by Miss Malin and by the Faustian black dog. The Cardinal's Christian name, Hamilcar, is that of one of the great classical rebels against Rome, and Langbaum comments upon the “antinomian morality” of his early attack upon “humility and renunciation, charity and chastity” (Langbaum, p. 60). At Norderney he has been studying the nature of the Holy Ghost and has apparently approached an understanding of it as a pagan principle of life, represented here, as in “The Fish,” “Peter and Rosa,” and “The Last Day,” by the sea. Calypso's story seems to act as the catalyst to his understanding. As he improvises a marriage ceremony for the young people, he responds more and more to the rhythm of the sea around them, then explains his theory of God, rejects the idea of the fall of man, and presents his own parable, the celebrated “Wine of the Tetrach.” Through his story he attacks the Christian doctrine of the atonement through the figure of Barabbas, the heroic pagan whose name means “son of the father” (Vickery, p. 147) and whose life has been destroyed by Christ's refusal to allow him a heroic death like the one chosen by the Cardinal. (See Hannah's fine discussion, pp. 162-66.)

The final movement of the story presents the triumph of the sea and the Cardinal's unmasking, the revelation of his true personality, which until now has been disguised by bandages stained with blood like the blood of Christ in his preceding narrative. His Christian disguise gone, the Cardinal presents himself as a true child of Dionysus with a suitably Dionysian pedigree—as actor, gravity-defying dancer, stepson of a tenor, son of a celebrated actress, French revolutionary, and bastard son of a revolutionary and democratic Duke of Orléans who took the name of Égalité.12 As his Dionysian pedigree indicates, the Cardinal has finally recognized his true nature because the story of Calypso's suffering has activated his “immense capacity for pity.” He tells Miss Malin, “That moment, in which I killed the Cardinal, that was the mating of my soul with destiny, with the soul of God” (SGT, pp. 6, 74). Finally purged of his Christian half, the Cardinal is ready for his initiatory kiss and for union with nature when the sea finishes the cleansing and purgation for which the young people were brought to Norderney and ends the story as god triumphant, apparently washing clean the world as sign of his eventual triumph over bourgeois Christianity and the oppression imposed by conventional morality. The position of Calypso's story at the heart of the tale, however, makes clear why the world needs purgation and why Dinesen writes stories in praise of Dionysus. Much of her pagan stance appears to be a reaction against the misogyny she sees as central to Christianity.

Dinesen's stance and her opposition to misogyny appear not only in her 1934 revisionist version of Noah's flood but throughout her work. Of her presentations of misogyny only “The Deluge at Norderney” is more chilling than the slight 1949 magazine story “Uncle Seneca.” The story is briefer than most of her pieces and more conventional in its construction. Nevertheless, it is typical in its themes, although it goes further than her serious stories in attributing misogyny to the world of men, the superficially kind ones as well as the blatantly bad.

The story describes the visit of Melpomene, the daughter of a bohemian actor, to the home of her bourgeois maternal aunt because her cousin Albert has fallen in love with her. The member of the household with whom she feels most comfortable, however, is the title character. The central incident of the story is Uncle Seneca's confession to the girl that he is Jack the Ripper.

The title character is a skilful study of male attitudes which result in misogyny. As a child he wanted to become a doctor but like Jonathan Mærsk was prevented by his family from following his natural bent. Consequently, he lives in dreams, where he does what he has been frustrated from doing in life. As a result he envies women, does needlework, and, ominously, collects butterflies and stuffs birds, apparently because of his own frustrations. From his questions to the girl, it appears that he is particularly fascinated by female sexuality, although his apparent interest lies in the freedom of her bohemian life. He also views women as angels or whores and is idealistic about their angelic roles, while he speaks with horror “Of creatures sunk still deeper [than ‘pickpockets and burlars’],—who really ought not to exist” (Carn, p. 163), because he sees female sexuality as dirty, as reflected in his questions about secret dark passages and rats. In his persona of Jack the Ripper, of course, he slashes out women's genitalia.

Whether Uncle Seneca is Jack the Ripper in reality or only in his wish-fulfilling dreams is irrelevant. Dinesen's message is clear about what lies behind the nineteenth-century idealization of women, the point of Albert's ominous description of the old man's deathbed when, in a delirium, he spoke of seeking out Melpomene in any hidden street. More chilling, however, is the implication that Uncle Seneca's views are shared by the other men of the story, especially Melpomene's father.

His role is especially interesting, as a bohemian who pretends to be free of bourgeois prejudice but who nonetheless exploits the girl. She idolizes him and as a result rejects her cousin's marriage proposal and rushes home to attend her father, who has been sulking in bed during her absence. One of his immediate fears is that Melpomene has learned that he has exploited her aunt, but the heaviest burden he has laid upon the girl is to raise a monument to him. The denouement of the story results from Uncle Seneca's empathy with the actor. As a result, he wills Melpomene the money for her monument with instructions that she herself set the base, inscribed with the initials of Jack the Ripper. Clearly, in his own way, Melpomene's father is as much Jack the Ripper as Uncle Seneca.

Just as disturbing, her cousin Albert is as well. Although he, his mother, and Melpomene share the same face, Dinesen indicates that conditioning makes character, and Albert is Uncle Seneca's protégé and heir. In his concluding letter to Melpomene, Albert mentions the dreams which Uncle Seneca has shared with him. Just as ominous, his treatment of Melpomene shows that he is as chivalrous as the deadly old man. Although he makes her a present of a black dog, he has taught his horses to do tricks. It is unclear what his attitude to his wife will be.

In her serious fiction Dinesen is more temperate in her view of men. Only in light pieces does she make sweeping condemnations, one of the reasons it is interesting as a weather vane to her stance. Another aspect of misogyny which she treats in both light and serious pieces is the hatred of their own bodies which men teach to women. Her serious treatment of the subject is presented in Lady Flora of “The Cardinal's Third Tale,” but a direct statement appears in The Angelic Avengers. As I have mentioned, the Reverend Mr. Pennhallow worships the true black powers, is a Christian fundamentalist, and sells young women into whoredom in order to create his ideal of “pure and guiltless womanhood” (AA, p. 141). Just as shocking is what he has taught his wife.

Mrs. Pennhallow has obviously learned to believe her husband's views of women, whom, without idealization, she sees as filthy sexual animals. She expresses her horror at the Roman Catholic Church which “worships a woman. In their churches you see a woman's image on the high altar. This is blasphemy.” She then presents her view of women and of herself:

“Man,” she said, “is made in the image of God, so it is written in the Scriptures. But woman is the most hideous of all creatures. The naked woman is so loathsome that thought shrinks from her. Never have I dared really to put up before myself the picture of a naked woman. If it had happened to me to view myself naked in a looking-glass, I should have had to stay in a dark room for the rest of my life. The particular functions of women are so abominable that even among themselves women will only mention them in a low voice. It is a terrible lot for a human being thus to despise and shrink from itself, and to know that there is no escape from the horror and debasement.”

Mrs. Pennhallow then praises men for their godlike charity to female loathsomeness. In all, her view of herself is a strong statement of what women encounter in a Protestant world (AA, p. 114).

If some of her characters express pride in their female sexuality and others loathing, it is probably because Dinesen developed her art from her own complex reactions to a world hostile to the natural woman. For example, Thurman focuses upon Dinesen's youthful fluctuations in weight and obsession with keeping her body as small as possible (Thurman, especially pp. 65-66), perhaps the reason Dinesen's most heroic, idealized, and unbelievable heroine, Ehrengard, is oversized like Athena Hopballehus of “The Monkey.” The idea that a large body means an expanded sexuality and hence breeds proportionately greater female self-loathing is the subject of Lady Flora Gordon's story in “The Cardinal's Third Tale.”

That the Scots giantess is too much woman for a petty world is expressed in her size, which reflects both her physical and mental superiority to the men around her. Her father in particular is pointedly a “small gentleman” in contrast to “the two mighty ladies” of his family (LT [Last Tales], p. 79). As well as being large, Lady Flora is also immensely rich, the size of her purse (like Alkmene's inheritance) reflecting the richness of her physical and mental endowments. Clearly, Lady Flora is a Brobdingnagian in a world of Lilliputians and has suffered accordingly, doomed to isolation in a world which rejects greatness and full sexuality in women.13

The problem which the story presents and resolves is the hatred for her own body which Lady Flora has developed in a misogynistic world. She dresses severely, acknowledging her womanhood only by wearing a strand of inherited pearls. Dinesen makes perfectly clear the reasons for her self-loathing. One of them is Scots Calvinism, “one of those North-European denominations which most of all despise and abhor beauty” (LT, p. 75).

The other is her father's use of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels to taunt his wife, who is a giantess like her daughter. A rake and philanderer, he reads the lady Gulliver's Travels and invents new adventures for the diminutive Gulliver. The text makes clear which of Jonathan Swift's passages Dinesen has in mind: Gulliver's description of his disgust at the sight of a woman's gigantic breast and his nausea at the appearance and smell of the queen's maids of honor. (See “A Voyage to Brobdingnag,” II, i, 74, and v, 95-96.)14 The narrator, Cardinal Salviati, presents a feminist reaction to Swift's description and concludes by saying, “I will not detail to you … this poet's sinister representation of what other poets have made the subject of sonnets” (LT, p. 78). It is no wonder that her husband's taunts destroy the “new-married wife's rich and innocent nature” (LT, p. 79).

Whether or not Thurman uses the word in her biography, she strongly implies that Dinesen was anorexic, a condition especially associated with women. In her story Dinesen describes the psychological mechanism associated with it, for the mother reacts to her husband's taunts about the grossness of her flesh by developing an “incessant, burning wish to grow smaller.” Disgust at her own body “had acted as a corrosive on her heart” (LT, p. 79), and the mother in turn poisons the daughter with the fear of sexuality which has also been connected with anorexia nervosa.

The story, nevertheless, shows Lady Flora learning to accept her sexuality, apparently by rejecting Protestant Christianity and replacing it with pagan values. As in “The Deluge at Norderney,” Dinesen here presents Catholicism as closer to pagan attitudes than it officially acknowledges or than a naïve priest like Father Jacopo (who unconsciously shares them) can understand. The statue of St. Peter, which humanizes Lady Flora by giving her syphilis, is clearly a refurbished pagan one, and Lady Flora's spiritual guide, Father Jacopo, is a man of the people who accepts both Lady Flora's cynicism and the freaks of nature in the spirit of Dinesen's African servants: “in the one case as in the other he would accept the catastrophe without the slightest personal rancor” (LT, p. 81). His manner of praying, too, is not typically Christian but takes the form of loving communion with the person he is praying for. The Cardinal respects him, but the Cardinal too is a servant of Dionysus, as his narrative in “The Cardinal's First Tale” indicates, the reason he shows feminine compassion for Lady Flora and her mother as he describes their sufferings. He encounters Lady Flora as he visits the home of his mother, and the introduction of the story emphasizes the scar on his face, which, in the preceding story, his mother has taken as a sign that he is Dionysio, not Atanasio as his father insisted.15

That Lady Flora really belongs to a pagan system which acknowledges goddesses is reflected not only in the reference to her as Lucifer in an argument (LT, p. 83) but particularly in her brusque dismissal of the Christian doctrine of the atonement, which she rejects out of hand, saying that she has paid for “A great deal of rubbish … in the course of my life”; “But what I have neither ordered nor paid for I will not receive” (LT, p. 87). She responds very differently to Peter's legendary reversed crucifixion, saying, “Is that something great, now—to let oneself be crucified head downward? One would not be able to help laughing!” (LT, p. 89). The syphilis she contracts via his statue allows her to imitate Peter's death and apparently to accept it as one of the jokes of God implicit in Dinesen's view of the world.

It also gives her an acceptance of the sexuality she can no longer ignore and of her brotherhood with humanity, with men in particular. The man “of the people” from whom she contracts her disease is small and graceful, in other words, very like her father (LT, p. 98). Dinesen's womenly women bear no rancor, the spirit of revenge here and elsewhere being foreign to the spirit of life Lady Flora has come to recognize. In her new-found womanliness she also shows compassion for Swift, whom she describes as “A fine poet. … But, alas, ill-advised” in his choice of subjects.16 Womanly as she has become, her nicknames among her fellow patients at the bath where the Cardinal meets her are especially appropriate, Diane and Principessa Daria, the latter for the dromedary of Arab legend, who alone is “keeper of the secret of Allah” and thus has insight denied even the Prophet—much less Scots Calvinists (LT, pp. 97, 95). A part of Lady Flora's knowledge would seem to be that the pagan world accepts female sexuality as the Christian one does not.

As I have indicated, Dinesen's stories show mixed feelings about men and divide them into those who are sympathetic to women and those who are, at best, misguided. Artists and writers like Swift may be great but still be hostile to women. If Dinesen reads Jonathan Swift critically, she read other great male writers with an equally feminist eye. For example, Dinesen knew the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and shows his influence in her fiction, most directly in the late story Ehrengard which, as Langbaum explains, “takes off from the novel, ‘Diary of the Seducer’” (Langbaum, p. 274). More specifically, Dinesen's story is a feminist retort to Kierkegaard.

The seducer of Dinesen's story is an artist, the Geheimrat Wolfgang Cazotte, who imitates Kierkegaard's character by attempting the mental seduction of the heroic virgin Ehrengard. Coldly and with deadly calculation, Kierkegaard's hero attempts to arouse a woman to passion in order to abandon her to frustration and mental anguish which she will never escape. Kierkegaard's story can thus be read as a horrifying presentation of perverted sexuality, hatred of life, and victimization of women.

The light texture of Dinesen's story helps to obscure the degree to which Dinesen's artist-seducer resembles Kierkegaard's, but the seduction he attempts is every bit as perverse and opposed to natural sexuality as that presented by Kierkegaard. Moreover, Cazotte repeatedly emphasizes that his seduction, as signalled by the girl's great blush, will annihilate her.17 The artist's motivation is worth pausing over, for Cazotte's motive is misdirected revenge, based on an unconfirmed suspicion that Ehrengard's father may be his own. Thus it is a generalized grudge focused upon the easiest victim, whom he takes to be his sister.18

Cazotte is more blatantly misogynistic than is usual in Dinesen's stories, and the one in which he appears is slighter, but Cazotte is connected with another male writer whom Dinesen refers to elsewhere. If she is critical of Swift and of Kierkegaard, she appears no less sharp-eyed in her reading of Goethe, whom Geheimrat Wolfgang Cazotte describes as “my gigantic namesake” (Ehren, p. 56). Gilbert and Gubar point out the particular influence of Goethe's vision of woman. They emphasize the influence of his idealized woman in “The famous vision of the ‘Eternal Feminine’ (Das Ewig-Weibliche) with which [his] Faust concludes” (Gilbert and Gubar, p. 21), but say little about the implicit misogyny in Marguerite's punishment for giving her body to the man she loves. Dinesen notices it, however, and makes Cazotte compare his contemplated humiliation of Ehrengard with Goethe's of his heroine, who “will know herself just as clearly as Gretchen to be fallen, broken and lost” (Ehren, p. 57). Apparently Dinesen also noted Goethe's division of women into angels and witches and his emphasis upon the obscenity and sexuality with which he characterizes the latter, particularly in his Walpurgis-Night scene (Goethe, I, xxi, 147-61).

It would seem that Dinesen saw much to deplore in both Goethe and in Thomas Carlyle who, as Gilbert and Gubar point out, did much to spread Goethe's view of women through Sartor Resartus, in which the enlightened protagonist cries, “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe” (Carlyle, p. 192, his emphasis). Although Dinesen does not name Sartor Resartus as one of the books she knows, she mentions Heroes and Hero-Worship in her letters and in the essay “Letters from a Land at War” comments that it “shares much of the outlook of the Third Reich,” which she characterizes as particularly hostile to women (Letters, p. 63, Dag, p. 109). Several times she borrows from Carlyle's masterpiece, however, specifically from his chapter “Symbols,” the power of which Carlyle explains by using the example of a flag:

Have not I myself known five-hundred living soldiers sabred into crows'-meat for a piece of glazed cotton, which they called their Flag; which, had you sold it at any market-cross, would not have brought above three groschen? … It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognize symbolical worth, and prize it the highest.

(Carlyle, p. 222)

Dinesen presents the same image and sentiments in the opening pages of “On Mottoes of My Life,” where she explains the power of symbols to the nineteenth century, and she repeats the image in “Daguerreotypes” (Dag, pp. 1-2, 50).19

Although she borrowed images from Carlyle, Dinesen was not ready to close her Byron, who appears frequently in her fiction and reflects her sympathy with the poet whom Carlyle disparaged in favor of Goethe,20 who, in contrast to the British Romantic poet, shows a notable absence of compassion for women with any taint of sexuality. Goethe's women may be angels and angelic souls so long as they remain sexless, but the message at the end of Faust is that the only good women are dead ones who no longer have sexual and hence witchlike bodies. Dinesen's exaltation of woman as witch throughout her fiction may be partly a rebuke to the German poet, like her use of the Mephistophelean black dog.

Goethe's disruption of natural sexuality is the subject of “The Poet,” the story which ends Seven Gothic Tales. The poet of the title, Councilor Mathiesen, idolizes Goethe, who is the “unseen directive force” of his life and of the story. To the Councilor, Goethe is “the ideal man—the superman.” The Nazi overtones of his adulation are emphasized in his own “ambition to feel himself … as superman in miniature” (SGT, pp. 360-61), the ambition he fulfills through the story by manipulating the lives of two young people in emulation of his German master.

As Dinesen describes him, the Councilor combines the most distasteful aspects of a perverse mentality. He is an upholder of law and order and enemy of revolution with a passion to possess and control the lives he touches. Like Uncle Seneca, he does needlework, and the imagery associated with him connects him with the evil ifrit who attempts to kill his savior in “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Jinni” as well as with the god Loki who destroys Valhalla. He is associated with cannibalism and is a sorcerer who turns babies into stone. Dinesen apparently includes the history of his marriage in order to show him as a murderer as well, for after his pious wife had caught him philandering and recognized him for a devil, he deliberately drove her to madness and death by wearing a pansy (for remembrance).

The influence of the Councilor's ideas is particularly destructive, to men as well as women. Early in the story Count Augustus von Schimmelmann of “The Roads Round Pisa,” for example, appears on a visit to the Councilor, his old tutor. Apparently because of his training, he is as aimless and out of touch as he was in the interview with the syphilitic zookeeper in Out of Africa, where he claimed that animals (like Dinesen's women) do not exist unless someone sees them. The Count has lost all ability to see. (“[H]ow does a rose look?” he asks, SGT, p. 338.) It follows that he cannot believe in his own existence or in God's. Nevertheless, he shares “many sympathies and common tastes” with the Councilor (SGT, p. 379). The Dionysian poet Anders Kube is also tainted by the old man, whose ideas inform Anders's final poem, the reason the young man rejects Fransine's love at the end of the story and sees her as a Goethean witch until he realizes what the Councilor has done to him (SGT, p. 412).

The action of the story describes the Councilor's destructive manipulation of Anders and of the lovely little widow, Fransine Lerche, whose name, lark, reflects her naturalness, as Kube, or bee hive, reflects Anders's. In order to control and direct the genius of the young man, the Councilor first decides that marrying him to Fransine will be a “Way of anchoring him” (SGT, p. 370) but soon realizes that together, the two might fly from his control. In the worldview Dinesen here associates with Goethe, neither poet nor woman must fly but must “be kept in a sort of cage or coop” to be watched like “a budding beauty of the seraglio” (SGT, p. 364).

One of the puzzles of the story is why Fransine accepts the old man's proposal when he decides that he must himself marry her and make her into “a guardian angel” to the young man to preach to him, apparently, the gospel according to Goethe in the role of a nineteenth-century stereotype (SGT, p. 393). Obviously, she should marry Anders, her natural mate, but here as always Dinesen is acute in her analysis of sexual politics. Fransine is a natural woman who reflects wholesome sexuality. She wears blue, responds touchingly to children, and before the Councilor's proposal “[radiates] a joy of life that was like a waltz” (SGT, p. 369). Like the young Alkmene, she has little regard for truth and cannot “distinguish between time and eternity” (SGT, p. 398). Although she is doll-like, she is also like Psyche and is associated with dancing butterflies.

Natural woman as she is, however, Fransine lives in a nineteenth-century world and is docile, as the doll imagery so prominently associated with her indicates. She accepts the Councilor's view of the world because she believes in his wisdom. Moreover, she has grown up in a ghetto where she watched birds being bled to death and public hangings like that of her own grandfather. People who have lived in ghettos, like Fransine and the Jew Elishama of “The Immortal Story,” are grateful to accept a shelter, although Fransine's paleness when she hears of Anders's reaction to her betrothal is not for “awe of sacred things,” as the Councilor assumes, but indicates that she realizes too late that the young man loves her (SGT, p. 392).

Passive and lovely, Fransine is an ordinary woman, not a rebel capable of disputing the Councilor's views. Thus she is a doll and needs a proper owner “to play with it, dress and undress it, and go into ecstasies over it,” and without whom, pathetically, she is “an ownerless doll, a stray doll” (SGT, p. 402). Finally, by the time the Councilor has done with her, she is a ruined doll, because he has destroyed the woman presented throughout the story as beautiful and fragile, now only a ghost whose body has shrunken to a stick. If the Councilor earlier wanted to anchor his victims, he has succeeded, for he has figuratively tied her legs with lead “like the weight tied to dead seamen's feet, which keeps them standing up, swaying, at the bottom of the sea” (SGT, p. 418).

Like Othello at the end of Shakespeare's play, Fransine learns to judge her betrayer too late. After acknowledging her own fault for acquiescing in the Councilor's views, she cries, “You poet!” and crushes his head with a rock. From the Councilor's close identification with Goethe throughout the story, there is little doubt which poet Dinesen has killed through Fransine.

The Councilor, however, dies in as much ignorance as he lived. While he is vicariously enjoying the spring and the young people's love, he feels as though he is swimming or flying and feels a sense of “harmony and happiness” (SGT, p. 399). A bit later he thinks “of a golden age, of an eternal innocence and sweetness” (SGT, p. 401). In the final scene, however, when he spies upon Fransine, the Councilor is notably perverse. If earlier he had noted “that great forces were in play” (SGT, p. 395), he does not recognize that the final scene represents the conflict between his view of the world as typified by Goethe and a presence represented by “the full summer moon,” whom he pointedly identifies as feminine and with whom he compares himself in age and in knowledge. He even wonders whether “this powerful communication from the moon [was] a warning” and recalls a nursery tale in which the moon first rebukes and then punishes a thief (SGT, pp. 405-6). She even inspires him with a sweet memory of adolescent passion, but he continues on his way to spy upon the young people, no whit deterred.

The moon apparently conquers and changes the course of the drama the Councilor has planned by inspiring both the young people with understanding of his evil, but the Councilor ends his life by retreating into the world of Goethe. After the drunken young poet has shot him, the Councilor still dreams of “[controlling] his world once more” (SGT, p. 413) and imagines himself in Weimar, because he realizes that a road runs between it and Fransine's house. The confusion of his values shows in his assumption that he is now safe “in the world of the mind of the great Geheimerat [sic]” as King Lear was in the hands of Shakespeare, as if the two poets were interchangeable. That he mistakes the nature of “high and divine law and order” is indicated by his rededication of himself to the spirit of Goethe in the words, “Ich bin Eurer Excellenz ehrerbietigster Diener” (SGT, p. 416) and by his agreement that Goethe's cruelty was justified “when he had made Margaret kill her child” (SGT, p. 417). His attempt to proclaim the beauty of Goethe's world to Fransine, however, is countered when, now “like a mænad,” she kills “the old sorcerer” (SGT, p. 419). His death is the opposite of Goethe's description of spirits soaring heavenwards. The Councilor, in contrast, feels himself flung into a deep abyss. In spite of the water which engulfs him, his death is clearly quite different from the embrace of the ocean which claims Peter and Rosa.

“The Poet” is particularly difficult because it is an early story, and the imagery shifts and is often inconsistent with Dinesen's later practice. As in Ehrengard, for example, Dinesen here uses the snake in the garden to indicate profound evil, while the doll imagery associated with Fransine is not pejorative. Just as inconsistent is the wider pattern of diabolical imagery, sometimes used to reflect profound evil and sometimes to indicate rebellion from conformity, as when Anders invades the church like “Lucifer storming heaven” (SGT, p. 390). In “The Poet” devils or witches can be good or bad, depending upon the context. Perverted by the Councilor, Anders views Fransine as a Goethean witch, “a cloven tongue of fire, a little marsh fire to show people the wrong way, the way to hell,” but the preceding third-person description, “She looked like a young witch under the moon” (SGT, pp. 411-12), is an objective description of her womanliness.

Apparently Dinesen uses shifting imagery in this story to indicate the varying perspectives of the characters as well as to illustrate distortions to seeing imposed by a Goethean view of women and of the world, as she does especially with her use of mirrors. Before the young people are entrapped, both can see clearly. Fransine kisses her reflection as a gesture that she accepts her sexuality, Anders instantly sees Schimmelmann as Andersen's naked emperor, and, as the two young people look at one another, “They took light and shade from each other like two mirrors hung opposite each other in a room” (SGT, p. 394). As MacAndrew indicates in her study of gothic fiction, the last example is associated with the total naturalness and innocence of characters like Paul and Virginia in a novel she presents as a predecessor of gothic fiction.

One of the effects of Goethe's idealized and Christian view, however, is that it takes away the ability to see, and the vision of both characters becomes distorted through the influence of the Councilor, especially that of Anders after the old man has taught him that his work is to show Fransine's “beauty reflected as in a mirror” in the idealized fairy creatures he is to describe (SGT, p. 387). The boy's complaint is thus ironic when he says, “I should like to be myself” (SGT, p. 412), since neither women nor men can be themselves in a world of false images. The Councilor is also associated with mirrors, his (like the one Schimmelmann looks into in the final line of “The Roads Round Piza”) an indication that he has no sense of his own existence or explanation of why he has the feeling “that he could not be seen” (SGT, p. 374).

Mirrors and reflections are only one aspect of a wider pattern of imagery in “The Poet.” The distorted world of the Councilor is first contrasted with a vision of the past, when Hirschholm was the favorite retreat of Queen Carolina Mathilda, here described at length and with great sympathy.21 Married at fifteen to the young but debauched Christian VII, she is described as a “pathetic pink-and-white and full-bosomed young Princess” and her husband as “a sort of Caligula in miniature” (SGT, p. 357). Hirschholm, however, is described as the site of her brief time of happiness with her lover, Dr. Struensee. Hirschholm, in other words, had once been a retreat where, however briefly, natural love flourished. Dinesen's description calls to mind that of the probably pseudonymous Mr. Brown, who, describing Hirschholm at this period, refers to “the giddy, gay, and wanton train, who filled the groves with music, love, revelry, and song” (Brown, I, 102). The queen's happiness and the joy she brought to Hirschholm, however, were short-lived: “Virtue triumphed in its most dismal form,” the palace was pulled down, and “the spirit of virtue and severe economy” has replaced the Dionysian revelries of the young queen (SGT, p. 358).

In describing the change at Hirschholm from the gay and free days of the young queen, Dinesen introduces the controlling metaphor of her story, for the town figuratively lies at the bottom of a lake which has covered it through the enchantment of the “old sorcerer.” The motif is introduced as Dinesen describes the destruction of the palace, “pulled down … partly because it was said to be sinking, of itself, into the lake,” and replaced by a church standing “like a cross upon its grave” (SGT, p. 358).

Variations of the story occur throughout Northern Europe (for example, in the American musical Brigadoon, which draws from Irish materials). Dinesen could have encountered it as a common Scandinavian folk motif, although she may have in mind its use in a particularly misogynistic Swedish play whose peasant heroine is made to suffer even more than Goethe's Marguerite for her sexuality. In August Strindberg's The Crownbride the girl Kersti has borne a child to her lover. Trying to hide the baby, she apparently smothers it and suffers through the rest of the play in the suitably gruesome expiation expected of her in a Christian world. The home to which her lover brings her after his family allows him to marry her (so long as she is a virgin) is an underwater mill, as the horrified Kersti recognizes. After torture, repentance, and sad suffering over an unspecified number of years, the girl becomes “the sacrificial lamb” whose death allows the church to rise again out of the lake which “has washed and washed away at it many hundred years” (Strindberg, ii, 113-14, vi, 155, 150).

Drawing from the folk motif, Dinesen reverses it, for clearly the world of Carolina Mathilda lies at the bottom in a distorted world created by misogynistic Christianity. As a result, “the little town looked like a town at the bottom of the sea. The tiled roofs blossomed forth like a growth of bold or pale coral; the blue smoke arose like thin seaweeds rising to the surface” (SGT, p. 377). It is small wonder that in such an enchanted world reflections become distorted, few can see clearly, and water becomes an ambiguous symbol.

The implication of the imagery is that the enchantment will lift when Fransine has killed the wicked magician, for the rushing waters used to describe his death indicate that the lake is draining. The story can thus be read as a parable of the influence of Goethe and as a signal that his influence may be waning. Nevertheless, it is grim in its indictment of a world in which life-giving spring rains fall into an enchanted lake and succeed only in increasing still more the distortions of a pious, Christian view of natural love and sexuality.

Although “The Poet” ends with a violent image of female revenge, such a response is atypical. Dinesen seems to think that the more feminine reaction is the kind of understanding and compassion Lady Flora shows to Swift at the end of “The Cardinal's Third Tale.” In fact, one of her most memorable stories, “The Dreamers,” can be read as a study of the womanly woman's answer to misogyny. The story examines male attitudes which have made the world too small for Lady Flora, Ehrengard, Athena Hopballehus, and, especially, for Pellegrina Leoni. Her encounters with the three men she meets in her varying roles constitute lessons to them on proper views of sexuality. Perhaps the earliest of Dinesen's mature works, “The Dreamers” is a compendium of images, themes, and character types worked out separately in the stories she wrote through the rest of her career. Although set in the nineteenth century, it is particularly a study of male attitudes which prevent a proper relationship between the sexes in the twentieth.

The frame in which Lincoln Forsner tells his story makes clear that it is not an idle one but, pointedly, a “lesson for Said,” a young man sailing to Zanzibar bent on revenge. As his brief history explains, Said has been betrayed by rivals and now is obsessed with the bloodbath he plans, but as the wise and mutilated old storyteller Mira Jama explains, “He will be showing mercy before he has done with all of us” (SGT, pp. 354, 279). At the end of the story the young man's laugh indicates that the lesson has been successful.22

The four separate tales which make up Lincoln's story describe the identities Pellegrina assumes after a fire has destroyed her voice and her career. They constitute her response to a world which has prevented her from being herself. As the greatest opera singer of her day, Pellegrina's voice was “the manifestation upon earth of God in his heaven” (SGT, p. 335). Because God has granted her the ability to make the poor people in the galleries “forget all the hardships of their existence, and remember the lost paradise” (SGT, p. 335), she devotes herself to cultivating her voice and the beauty which helps her to present it. Thus Pellegrina is a vessel of God dedicated to manifesting Him, the reason the old Jew Marcus Cocoza repeatedly compares her to the Virgin Mary.

Like her voice, Pellegrina's sex life also reflects that she is bigger than the conventional world around her. Cocoza compares her to a python and contrasts her all-embracing love with the venomous sex games more typical of the world. He thus trained her, he explains, “to achieve a lightness in such things which was not hers by birth.” As a result, she paradoxically becomes free and psychologically virgin like the temple priestesses and goddess Ishtar described by Harding. Breaking in to remark on the Jew's narrative, Lincoln describes “a very lovely song about true and pure love” and comments, “Only a whore has ever sung it well” (SGT, pp. 337-38). Even in her real life, then, Pellegrina combines the aspects of whore and virgin, as she continues to do in the identities she subsequently assumes.

The fire which breaks out upon the stage and destroys her voice has overtones which imply that Pellegrina's disaster was not an impersonal act of God but rather a result of misogyny, one of the themes introduced early in the story when Mira Jama repeats one of the blood-curdling tales he used to tell. It is a brief story of “the Sultan [who] wanted a true virgin, such as had never heard of men,” found her, and then saw her gazing at a young man whom she mistook for an angel. Greatly saddened, he buried the pair alive and subsequently sat upon their grave, mourning “at how he was never to have his heart's desire” (SGT, pp. 273-74). The tale of Pellegrina describes other young men who do not know how to find their “heart's desire” and continues the theme of misogyny which dominates the story.

That Pellegrina's fire is male revenge against an autonomous woman who is sexually free is implicit in the imagery of rape which Marcus Cocoza uses to describe it. Searching for an image adequate to express her experience, Marcus thinks of a royal bride travelling to meet her bridegroom but raped on the way. The image of rape continues as Cocoza refers to Pellegrina as “the ravished royal virgin” (SGT, pp. 339-40). The first comfort he can offer her is through another story of rape, as he tells her about the ballet he has imagined “which was to take its theme from all the things that had befallen us.” He intends to call it Philomela, the name of the princess whose rapist cuts out her tongue and who is subsequently transformed into either a nightingale or, more aptly in Pellegrina's case, a swallow (SGT, p. 342).

Other evidence of misogyny lies in Dinesen's emphasis upon the scene Pellegrina is playing when the fire breaks out. Langbaum identifies it and relates it to a story by the German Romantic E. T. A. Hoffmann as well as to Kierkegaard's study, “The Immediate Stages of the Erotic or the Musical Erotic” from Either/Or. Pellegrina is singing the role of Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni, which Kierkegaard praises in his essay as the most quintessentially musical opera ever written because the Don embodies the erotic force most clearly expressed by music.

The erotic force Kierkegaard describes is one which reduces all women to sex objects. Of the Don's attempts upon the peasant girl Zerlina, for example, Kierkegaard emphasizes that the Don wants of her only what “she has in common with every woman.” Again, Kierkegaard says, “He desires in every woman the whole of womanhood, and therein lies the sensuously idealizing power with which he at once embellishes and overcomes his prey.” All of his victims are thus in his power and exist only in relation to him, Elvira through her love, Zerlina through her fear, and Anna through her hate. Thus, according to Kierkegaard, the spirit of music is most completely represented by a character whom the opera presents less as seducer than as thwarted rapist. He presents Donna Anna, the role Pellegrina is singing, as an incarnation of hatred, driven by outrage and revenge (Kierkegaard, pp. 96, 98, 124).23

In “Don Juan,” however, Hoffmann reads Mozart's opera very differently. He sees the Don as a criminal aspiring to godhead who has raped Donna Anna in the opening scene of the opera, while she is the very incarnation of love and of Mozart's music. Rather than embodying hatred, Hoffmann's Anna subsequently tries to help the Don and thus typifies Pellegrina's role throughout Dinesen's story.

In the fire which destroys Pellegrina, it would appear that the misogynistic spirit of Kierkegaard's essayist has flamed out to overcome Hoffmann's feminist and sympathetic view. Hoffmann particularly praises the aria Pellegrina is singing (in which she is defending herself against a charge of cruelty), but Kierkegaard decrees that Pellegrina's aria “must go” (Kierkegaard, p. 122).

In Dinesen's story Anna's aria is indeed expunged, but Pellegrina's reaction to her mutilation rebukes Kierkegaard, for, her identity destroyed, she continues as an embodiment of love rather than of the hatred and lust for revenge which he has assigned to her. Nevertheless, Kierkegaard appears to have destroyed Pellegrina's identity as he has destroyed the identities of the women in Mozart's opera. Symbolically killed, she arises from her sick bed “in a way, from the dead,” no longer an individual but an ordinary woman who must play roles to suit the varying expectations of the men she encounters (SGT, p. 342).

An important aspect of her mutilation is the fragmentation represented early in her death scene by the “dark shadow [which] covered the one side of her face” (SGT, p. 329) as well as by the old, black-garbed Jew, Marcus Cocoza, whom Pellegrina twice refers to as her shadow (SGT, pp. 305, 287). Dinesen seems to use him as surrogate woman, as I have argued that she does as well with Prince Pozentiani in “The Roads Round Pisa” and with the Jew Elishama in “The Immortal Story.” After the brief reference to the sexism and unhappiness of his youth from which she saved him, Cocoza is presented as a feminine presence, not Pellegrina's lover, but the friend to whom she “turned … as a child to its mother” (SGT, p. 332). His intelligence has trained her in sexuality, and he is twice described as the moon which follows her earth (SGT, pp. 346, 287). True to Doppelgänger tradition, after Pellegrina's mutilation, she says to him, “we must part” (SGT, p. 346), and the two subsequently appear separately, never together. Although Cocoza is “fabulously rich” (SGT, p. 287), as a Jew he bears the undeserved opprobrium of the world. Thus Cocoza reflects the wealth and intellect of Pellegrina herself, which figuratively mutilated women are not allowed to express when they are forced into playing roles to please men. Only when the singer lies dying are the two united, when she turns to him for approval of her roles. Integrated once more, before she dies Pellegrina can exclaim, “It is I—I forever, now” (SGT, p. 352).

The roles she has played as a woman and which Cocoza approves make up much of Dinesen's tale and constitute studies of various kinds of misogyny. In each encounter, however, Pellegrina returns good for evil, as even the vicious Swedish Don Juan is forced to admit, because she has retained the love for the poor and unhappy of the world which was Pellegrina's key passion. Her charity to men after an experience which should evoke the spirit of vengeance is apparently the “lesson for Said” intended by Mira Jama, Lincoln Forsner, and Isak Dinesen.

The first role in which Pellegrina appears in “The Dreamers” is a comment upon the basis of nineteenth-century sexism, for the name she takes is Olalla, the name of the title character of a Victorian gothic story by Robert Louis Stevenson, who used nonrealistic fiction to express doubts and fears about his own animality, as he does, for example, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (see Block's article). Because of his Calvinistic background, he is a prime example of the loathing for one's body which Dinesen attributes to Christianity and especially to strict Protestantism. If Dr. Jekyll fears his body so much that he wants to split off what he sees as his evil, animal half, in “Olalla” Stevenson projects the same hatred of the body onto women.

Dinesen's Olalla reverses the message of Stevenson's story, whose title character is the beautiful and pious offspring of a degenerate Spanish family. Her brother is feeble-minded, and her mother is a voluptuous and animal-like beauty. In a horrifying scene the mother attacks the throat of the male narrator to illustrate that she is a subhuman predator. Because the daughter shares her mother's animal body, the narrator describes his love for her as “brute attraction, mindless and inevitable.” Not surprisingly, he is appalled at “this savage and bestial strain that ran not only through the whole behaviour of her family, but found a place in the very foundations and story of our love,” while the girl laments that her soul is imprisoned in “This capsule, such as throbs against the sides of animals” (Stevenson, XVI, 400, 407, 409).

Dinesen's Olalla, Pellegrina, teaches Lincoln Forsner how to escape from a background and outlook similar to Stevenson's, especially from the father who embodies blind egotism and patriarchal Christianity. Lincoln is preparing to capitulate to this father's values when he meets Olalla in a Roman brothel, and she teaches him the interrelation of soul and flesh. As a result, he can recognize “the dead and clammy atmosphere of [his] former world and [his] home,” break free of it, and ultimately himself become a dreamer after his father casts him off to be a scapegoat like the Jew Cocoza (SGT, p. 288).

Pellegrina's lessons in love to Lincoln reflect one of Dinesen's central messages to the modern world. Describing their relationship, Lincoln contrasts it with conventional love relationships, “which begin in the drawing-room with banalities, flatteries and giggles, and go through touches of hands and feet, to finish up in what is generally held to be a climax, in the bed. This love affair of mine in Rome, which began in the bed, helped on by wine and much noisy music, and which grew into a kind of courtship and friendship hitherto unknown to me, was the only one that I have ever liked” (SGT, p. 284). Through Olalla he has been taught to see women not as reflections of his fear of his own body but as friends and equals. As in “Babette's Feast,” Dinesen's message is that the road to spirit lies through the flesh.

Pellegrina's second pupil, Friederich Hohenemser or Pilot, is more difficult to teach, because he is the prototype of Augustus von Schimmelmann and, like him, spends his life in a “hopeless struggle for existence” (SGT, p. 292). Pellegrina helps him as Madame Lola, a milliner of Lucerne to whom great ladies “made pilgrimages,” although married men and clerics warn the young man strongly against having anything to do with her (SGT, p. 297). Madame Lola resembles the artist-chef of “Babette's Feast” in the witch imagery associated with her and in her activities as a revolutionary fighting against the party led by the priests. As if to stress her powers, she is as well a healer who almost miraculously mends Pilot's broken leg.24

The reason Madame Lola helps Pilot to imagine himself is made clear only at the end of his story when Lincoln describes what he hopes was his subsequent life:

I do not know if, in any of his existences, he married. The marriage of Friederich Hohenemser would have been bound to be miserably unhappy, and I would have pitied the woman who had to drag him along with her in it; but Fridolin [the identity Pilot assumes on Madame Lola's advice] might well have married and given his wife a peaceful and pleasant time. For he would not have been occupied all the time in proving to her that he really existed, which is the curse of many wives, but might have quietly enjoyed seeing her existing.

(SGT, pp. 348-49)

Thus Dinesen's concern in presenting Pilot's story is again to cure a modern sexual malady.

Pellegrina's last pupil, however, is the one type of man who is incorrigible. Meeting the Swedish Baron Guildenstern, Pellegrina has come full circle and is again confronting the rapist Don Juan who previously destroyed her. Her meeting with him emphasizes her relation to Hoffmann's Donna Anna, for as Madame Rosalba she is the very spirit of charity and of what Dinesen apparently sees as the ideal of womanliness. Her alliance with the true spirit of God is reflected in her relationship to the Spanish general who died “a hero and a martyr to the cause of the rightful king of Spain” (SGT, p. 305), an echo of the Cardinal's description of the true and usurping kings of heaven in “The Deluge at Norderney.”

As a result Rosalba combines the qualities of nun and whore and is pointedly associated with “the highly ranking saint of heaven, St. Mary of Magdala” (SGT, p. 305). The shocked but tantalized Baron (who is a Lutheran) explains, “She preached theology with as much voluptuousness as if the table of the Lord was the one real treat to a gourmet” (SGT, p. 308). As the spirit of Kierkegaard's Don Juan, however, the Baron is incapable of seeing anything in a woman except what “she has in common with every woman” (Kierkegaard, p. 96), and Lincoln marvels at the trouble he takes “to obtain, time after time, a repetition of exactly the same trick” (SGT, p. 294). The Baron's only drives are sexual conquest and competition, his only feelings “envy or contempt” (SGT, p. 295). He has no values of his own and pursues only what other people cherish. To crown his characterization, he is also a coward and, not surprisingly, an anti-Semite.

The climax of their encounter pits Kierkegaard's Don against Hoffmann's Anna, he resolved to rape her (as, given the opportunity, he would St. Mary Magdalen) and she as saintly as the souls who constitute the mystical rose in Dante's Paradiso. Throughout their interview she emphasizes that the Baron is Don Giovanni yet attempts to save him from the Don's fate. Rosalba begins by reminding the Baron of the opera and of the avenging statue, which, she says, is on the dead Spanish general's tomb as well, and she emphasizes that his rape will destroy her. In her key questions, she repeatedly probes him for any human response. The Baron, however, is incapable of any but a sexual answer, to which Rosalba responds with deep sorrow and pity and yet another offer to help him escape “from this terrible fall and the perdition of us both” (SGT, p. 312). As she recognizes, however, he is the one man whom she is incapable of helping. The narration breaks off as the Baron is ripping off her clothes, but his subsequent knowledge that “That holy lady has on her back a little brown mole” indicates how the encounter ends. Pellegrina's reaction to him when she meets him, Lincoln, and Pilot high on a mountain pass reflects the only response to such a man as she tries to keep “from laughing at him” (SGT, p. 326).

Of the three men Pellegrina has encountered, clearly Lincoln Forsner is the most important as well as the most sympathetic. Although he joins with the others in driving Pellegrina to her death when he insists on knowing her identity, he acknowledges his guilt. Only he learns the full lesson she has to teach and subsequently, as an initiate into the Dionysian view of life, has become a dreamer and an artist. The story of Pellegrina is Lincoln's tale and in one sense is a dream of what ideal responses to misogyny should be, as Lincoln emphasizes by his repeated suggestions that he may have only imagined both characters and action.

But as the frame of his story suggests, there are dreams and dreams. The one Lincoln tells is generated by an extraordinary scene lovingly described. The setting is a dhow on the open sea between Lamu and Zanzibar: “The free monsoon came from far places, and the sea wandered on under its sway, on her long journey, in the face of the dim luminous moon. But the brightness of the moon upon the water was so clear that it seemed as if all the light in the world were in reality radiating from the sea, to be reflected in the skies.”25 The twin forces of the moon and sea thus preside over Lincoln's tale. The boat itself carries a double cargo, “of ivory and rhino-horn” (SGT, p. 271), paralleling the classical gates to true and false dreams, as Lincoln's name does as well, for his native name, Tembu, “may mean either ivory or alcohol, as it pleases you” (SGT, p. 272). Wine or alcohol, however, is only one way through the gate of horn for the Dionysian artist, and Lincoln is chewing an African narcotic which has inspired his tale and “made him communicative” (SGT, pp. 272-73), another indication that he is a true artist and his story a true vision, even though—or perhaps because—it is presented as a dream.

My reading is based upon the presence throughout “The Dreamers” of E. T. A. Hoffmann, whom Dinesen told Eugene Walter she admired (“The Art of Fiction,” p. 57). “The Dreamers,” in fact, is almost a compendium of the influences Gwendolyn Bays attributes to the German writer. Bays says, for example, “In the world of Hoffmann the world of poetic vision is an autonomous one, presented with the same objectivity that the realistic writer uses to create the scenes of everyday life. Hoffmann considers the dream a means of artistic creation, of communion with the ‘World Soul,’ and thus of the attainment of truth: ‘To compose is to enter the kingdom of dreams …,’ he says” (Bays, p. 61). Bays explains that to Hoffmann the true artist must pass through “the kingdom of dreams” in order to arrive at the truth and says that Hoffmann popularized the use of hashish among French artists.

Hoffmann's theory of dreams would seem to be Dinesen's in this story, while the clarity and objectivity with which they fuse with the realistic world is a key trait of Dinesen's work as well as of his. In Hoffmann's stories Bays speaks of “his use of the marvelous—not as in the fairy tale where all is enchantment, but in the sudden vivid intrusion of the mysterious into the most commonplace events of everyday life” (Bays, p. 59). A better description has seldom been given of Dinesen's practice in stories from “The Monkey” and “The Supper at Elsinore” in Seven Gothic Tales to such late ones as “The Ring” in Anecdotes of Destiny and “Night Walk” in Last Tales.26 Even the conception of music embodied by Pellegrina seems to derive from Hoffmann (Sándor, pp. 180, 185).

The conception of the artist which Dinesen presents here and elsewhere is strongly Hoffmannesque. According to Bays, Hoffmann's artist must feel an intimate rapport with nature and “come to perceive the whole world as enchanted and directed by mysterious forces.” Dinesen's use of the double in this story is also worth noticing. Fond as she is of dividing characters into alter egos, in no other story does she follow traditional Doppelgänger lore so closely as she does in “The Dreamers.” Even the Danish title of the collection in which the story first appeared carries Hoffmannesque echoes, for Dinesen called it Syv Fantastiske Fortaellinger (Fantastic Tales), the word which, according to Bays, was popularized by Hoffmann as “a term of high literary praise” (Bays, pp. 59, 63).

Rich and complex as “The Dreamers” is, it is an especially suitable story for ending this study, just as it was an astonishing one to open Dinesen's mature literary career. In this story alone she seems to have presented a compendium of modern sexual attitudes. The majority of her subsequent stories are variations upon the themes it presents, especially her defence of women and her analysis of the various faces of misogyny.


  1. Dinesen's letters about Islam contain her most outspoken statements about the role of women in patriarchal religion, although the misogyny she writes about is not confined to professing Christians or Moslems. See particularly Letters, pp. 62-63, 381-82, 397, 398-99, and 403.

  2. Dinesen could have gotten hints for her presentation of men who arrogate to themselves the powers of a patriarchal god in Anne Brontë's study of nineteenth-century marriage, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In one particular encounter, Arthur Huntingdon rebukes his young wife for worshipping God instead of him and says, “a woman's religion ought not to lessen her devotion to her earthly lord.” In response, the protagonist asks, “What are you, sir, that you should set yourself up as a god … ?” (xxiii, 170-71).

  3. Following Aage Henriksen, Langbaum associates the motif with “Jung and Kerényi's study of the ancient myths about the Divine Child who had magical powers and was usually a foundling among humble people,” p. 173.

  4. In her brief but perceptive discussion of the story, Janet Lewis points out that when Alkmene watches an execution in Copenhagen, “she has herself died vicariously at that moment, and by her own will. Thereafter in the story she speaks of Alkmene in the third person, as of someone who no longer exists” (Lewis, p. 309). That the execution is her own and that the death of the victim, Ole Sjælsmark, is the death of Alkmene's soul is indicated in the Danish Sjæl.

  5. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Dinesen's work is her use of symbolic representations like Alkmene's gold. Her practice reflects nineteenth-century use and offers an important key to understanding the literature of the past century.

  6. Discussions of the story generally focus upon the child, whom I see as Dionysian catalyst to Emilie and her subsequent growth.

  7. Mamzell Ane is reminiscent of Viggo's governess from “The Last Day”: “a vestal virgin, an old ivory knitting needle” (Carn, p. 135). Before the child dies, Emilie sees the old woman as a powerful witchly figure reminiscent of the aged Dinesen. Her Danish name reflects instinctive insight.

  8. The old sailor is the probably symbolic consort of the boy's mother, whose name is Magdalena and who has taught her son a reverence for nature very like that Kamante ascribes to Dinesen. It includes “the belief that the plants, flowers, and insects of the world were the really important things in it, and that human beings were here only to look after them” (SGT, p. 29).

  9. The theme is similar to Ralph Ellison's perception of Black America in The Invisible Man. Aspects of it also appear in George Eliot's Middlemarch and, especially, in Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell's Wives and Daughters.

  10. Dinesen pauses to explain that the power of the old woman's imagination has heightened the story but points out that to the girl herself it was nonetheless “a symbol, a dressed-up image of what she had in reality gone through” (SGT, p. 46) and, by implication, of what other women have as well.

  11. In her preference for Catholicism over Protestantism, Dinesen probably has in mind the difference in their attitudes towards human depravity, the Lutheran view that fallen man is totally depraved as opposed to the more humane Catholic one which recognizes human limitations but human dignity as well. (For an outline of the difference, see Erb, p. 31.) Her stories also make clear that she responded to the pagan elements assimilated by the Roman Church in such figures as the Virgin Mary.

  12. The Cardinal's revolutionary activities and love for the common people relate him to Pellegrina Leoni of “The Dreamers” as well as to Babette of “Babette's Feast,” while the name he now takes, Kasparson, may be intended to echo the anti-hero of German puppet plays, Kasper, as Annegret Wiemer pointed out to me. Like his English cousin Punch, Kasper has been taken as a revolutionary spokesman for the common man. On the revolutionary significance of Punch, see Baird, p. 103, and Eichler, pp. 8-12.

  13. In using physical size to reflect comparative smallness or greatness of mind, Dinesen is cleverly following Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels, although Auerbach points out the frequency with which nineteenth-century fiction includes “outsize heroines.” She particularly cites the title character of George du Maurier's Trilby, whose size, Auerbach remarks, “[hints] that the novel's world is too small for her to live in” (pp. 17-18). Lady Flora may have been inspired by the red-haired Canadian giantess Anna Swan (1846-1888), who toured with P. T. Barnum and is the subject of a feminist novel by Susan Swan, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World, which also uses size to reflect female sexuality.

  14. Dinesen reads Swift (whose close friends John Gay and Alexander Pope attacked Denys Finch Hatton's ancestress, Anne Finch) as some contemporary feminist critics do, seeing these passages and the scatology of his verse as attacks upon female sexuality. See especially Gilbert and Gubar, p. 31. Ellmann also refers to “Swift, who focussed for horror upon the Brobdingnagian nurse's breast (rather than, say, the Brobdingnagian butler's buttocks) and who asked that portentous question, Does Celia shit?” p. 67).

  15. It should be noted that he shares his scar with another notably un-Christian character, Pellegrina Leoni of “The Dreamers,” as well as with Milton's Satan.

  16. Her cryptic comment, “I love the Dean—(and lead a heart)!” (LT, p. 97) is not elucidated by the Danish version, which omits the line.

  17. Cazotte's deadly manipulation is also signalled in an implied analogy with Pygmalion, for, as Langbaum notices, he sees Ehrengard as a “block of marble” ready to be formed and manipulated into life, a figure Susan Gubar sees as a male supremacy myth (Langbaum, p. 277, Gubar, p. 243).

  18. Cazotte's motive is mirrored by another character, Matthias, who kidnaps a baby because of a similar grudge illogically focused upon his wife, since retaliation upon her gives him “back some of his self-confidence” (Ehren, p. 84).

  19. A description in Shadows on the Grass also echoes Carlyle's chapter. Speaking of the natives, she says, “They had deep roots to their nature as well, down in the soil and back in the past, the which, like all roots, demanded darkness” (SG, p. 90). Carlyle's subject is virtue: “Like other plants, Virtue will not grow unless its root be hidden, buried from the eye of the sun. Let the sun shine on it, nay do but look at it privily thyself, the root withers, and no flowers will glad thee” (Carlyle, p. 219). I suspect that Dinesen read Sartor Resartus as a child. At least, the same image appears in her early marionette comedy, “The Revenge of Truth,” where the witch Amiane uses it, although the image could have resulted from a later revision.

  20. As a gloss to Dinesen's fondness for Byron, the poet Louis MacNeice's poem Ten Burnt Offerings, according to Vickery, presents Byron as a fertility god modelled on Frazer's Golden Bough. Vickery says, “MacNeice … develops an imagery pattern that conflates Byron, Christ, Adonis, and Meleager into a single composite figure of sacrificial death” (Vickery, p. 176. See also p. 178).

  21. Queen Sophia Magdalena (wife of Christian VI), who named Hirschholm, is not to be confused with her granddaughter, the Sophia Magdalena married to Gustavus III of Sweden. Dinesen refers to both in “Sorrow-Acre.” Dinesen refers to Carolina Mathilda in two essays, “Daguerreotypes” (Dag, p. 26) and “Rungstedlund: A Radio Address” (Dag, p. 198). As noted earlier, Caroline Mathilda is also the model for Childerique's idealized mother in “The Caryatids.”

  22. Although Dinesen was usually meticulous in her use of historical references, I found none to a palace revolt in 1863, the time of the story, but one had taken place a few years earlier abetted by several of the royal princesses. As a result, the ruler, Seyyid Majid, exiled his brother and successor as well as a young brother. The boy was less than twelve at the time and shared his older brother's exile in India. (See Hamilton, pp. 117-33.) The boy's maternal uncle, Tippu Tib (Tippo Tip in the story) was a famous Arab trader with close connections to the royal house of Zanzibar. A description of him appears in Ingrams, pp. 168-71.

  23. Dinesen no doubt admired Kierkegaard's work, as she told Langbaum (p. 101n), perhaps in part because of the philosopher's acute analysis of the erotic force which he describes as a direct result of Christianity and its exaltation of the spiritual. Judith Lee emphasizes his influence upon Dinesen's conception of tragedy. Nevertheless, Dinesen could not have failed to see the strain of misogyny in this essay, as she did in Goethe's Faust and in “Diary of the Seducer.”

  24. In Madame Lola, Dinesen may be revising a twentieth-century example of misogyny, Josef von Sternberg's 1930 film The Blue Angel, whose heroine, Lola-Lola, destroys the identity of her victim. In his introduction to the authorized translation, Sternberg brags that he reversed the plot of his source, Heinrich Mann's Professor Unrath, as well as the name and role of the cabaret singer, originally Rosa Fröhlich. In choosing Marlene Dietrich for the role, Sternberg says he was searching for “das Ewig-Weibliche” (Sternberg, pp. 11-12).

  25. Dinesen's opening scene for “The Dreamers” shows strong parallels to one in H. Rider Haggard's popular romance She, in which a boatload of men also sails off the coast of East Africa:

    There rises a vision of the great calm ocean gleaming in shaded silver lights beneath the beams of the full African moon. A gentle breeze fills the huge sail of our dhow, and draws us through the water that ripples musically against our sides. Most of the men are sleeping forward, for it is near midnight, but a stout swarthy Arab, Mahomed by name, stands at the tiller, lazily steering by the stars. Three miles or more to our starboard is a low dim line. It is the Eastern shore of Central Africa. We are running to the southward, before the North East Monsoon, between the mainland and the reef that for hundreds of miles fringes that perilous coast. The night is quiet, so quiet that a whisper can be heard fore and aft the dhow; so quiet that a faint booming sound rolls across the water to us from the distant land.

    (iv, 48)

    In Africa Dinesen drew her serious reading from Denys Finch Hatton's library, but she also read the popular fiction available in Nairobi.

  26. Describing Hoffmann's aesthetics, Sándor describes his Märchen as having a “deep foundation, a governing idea derived from some philosophical view of life” and comments that they thus “combine two realms, the realm of the miraculous and the realm of common life” which amalgamate into myth—as Dinesen's stories typically do as well (pp. 179, 266, 294). Sándor also emphasizes the importance of humor in Hoffmann's stories (pp. 280, 338).

Susan Hardy Aiken (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7377

SOURCE: Aiken, Susan Hardy. “Writing (in) Exile: Isak Dinesen and the Poetics of Displacement.” In Women's Writing in Exile, edited by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, pp. 113-31. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Aiken underscores the “conflation of exile, sexual difference, voice, and writing” in Dinesen's “The Dreamers.”]

People who dream … know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom … the freedom of the artist.

—Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa


Day is a space of time without meaning, and … it is with the coming of dusk, with the lighting of the first star and the first candle, that things will become what they really are, and will come forth to meet me. … During my first months after my return to Denmark from Africa, I had great trouble in seeing anything at all as reality. My African existence had sunk below the horizon, … then faded and disappeared. … The landscapes, the beasts and the human beings could not possibly mean more to my surroundings in Denmark than did the landscapes, beasts, and human beings of my dreams at night. Their names here were just words. … There they were, all of them, nine thousand feet up, safe in the mould of Africa, slowly being turned into mould themselves. And here was I, walking in the fair woods of Denmark, listening to the waves of Öresund. … What business had I had ever to set my heart on Africa?

(Dinesen, “Echoes from the Hills,” 112-14)

Thus Karen Blixen would recall her bereavement on losing the place she called “my heart's land.”1 Paradoxically, going “home” to “the fair woods of Denmark” in 1931, after seventeen years in Kenya, seemed to her tantamount to entering a condition of permanent exile, a forced dwelling in a space—both geographical and psychological—from which she had felt herself estranged since earliest childhood. Inscribing this event in Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, she would repeatedly write repatriation as exmatriation: to lose Africa was to lose more than a homeland of the spirit; it was also to lose the place she claimed as the matrix of her creativity, the place where, as she wrote in “Mottoes of My Life,” she began at last to speak “freely and without restraint” (7).2 For it was in Africa that she found her mature voice as a storyteller, creating the earliest versions of the haunting narratives that would become Seven Gothic Tales. To leave Africa, then, was not only to enter what she described as a living death but potentially to risk the loss of that authorial voice as well.3

Yet it was, after all, the voice alone that remained to her when she returned, bankrupt and bereft, to Denmark, and with it she would make her future as a writer, taking those “words” to which her African existence had been reduced and transforming them into fictive flesh: the body of writing that would bring her worldwide recognition as “Isak Dinesen.” Incipient in the passage above, then, is a poetics of displacement, grounded in a reading of the author's diurnal, living “reality” as a form of death or dream, an exile in which, like an unquiet spirit, she becomes a permanent wanderer. In this oneiric realm, words—which seem at first a ghastly remnant, appalling shreds, the insubstantial traces of a lost plenitude—paradoxically become the very stuff of resurrection, strands from which she would fabricate both a persona and a textual corpus. For Dinesen, writing became at once the sign of wounding, a form of mourning, and a way to regeneration: words, even while bearing witness to her permanent loss of what she called “my real life,” would also give rise to the vibrant life of her texts (“Mottoes,” 6).4 It is no accident that the figure of dreaming, with all it implies of discontinuity and displacement, would become one of her recurrent metaphors not only for exile but for narrative itself.

Beginning in geographical alienation, displacement operates in Dinesen's writing at many levels. Consider, for example, her extraordinary double textual system, her practice of writing virtually every text twice—once in English, as Isak Dinesen, then in Danish, as Karen Blixen—an extension of the many names and masks she bore throughout her life.5 By choosing English as her primary literary language, she displaced herself from her native tongue; by rewriting the texts in Danish, she displaced them from their own ostensible origin(al)s. The gap opened by this two-fold inscription goes beyond the transatlantic distance between national borders and literary canons: just as the sexual doubleness of her signature mystifies the “true” nature of the writer's body, so the textual doubleness of her literary production calls into question the “true” nature of her narrative corpus, the body of her writing. In either case, writing marks a process of dislocation; the place of the author becomes indeterminate. Moving between two linguistic worlds, locatable in neither, Karen Blixen both is, and is not, Isak Dinesen.

As her choice of a male pseudonym implies, these enactments of writing as a form of exile are inseparable from issues of sexual difference. Dinesen's Letters from Africa develops an extensive analysis of woman's irrevocable status as a foreigner within androcentric culture and discourse, an analysis that provides an important perspective on her fiction (e.g., 163, 240-41, 244-51, 258-65, 399). By writing her English texts “as a man,” in effect displacing herself from herself, Dinesen made the male signature the sign of alienation, inscribing her own difference from patriarchal traditions even as she appeared to enact her erasure within them. In the light of her many reflexive speculations on the power of woman—operating perforce on the margins of the dominant discourse—to challenge, disrupt, and ultimately transform the symbolic order that would enforce her otherness, the signature would become for Dinesen an ironic instrument of resistance, turning apparent subservience into subversiveness (e.g., Letters, 240-41, 246; Out of Africa, 179-80).6 It is no coincidence that the Hebrew meaning of Isak conflates exile with both woman's laughter and female generativity. As I have shown elsewhere, Dinesen uses those connotations in radical ways, destabilizing the preeminent Judaeo-Christian patriarchal formula—“Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”—by appropriating and feminizing its central term.7 Thus she transforms exile into the space for engendering stories suffused with what, describing one of the many subversive female artists in her fiction, she called the “laughter of liberation” (Seven Gothic Tales, 21).

This conflation of exile, sexual difference, voice, and writing is elaborated in many of Dinesen's greatest works, most obviously, of course, in her memoirs Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. In this essay, however, I will consider its operations not in one of her fictionalized autobiographies but in one of her most complex autobiographical fictions: an early novella entitled, significantly, “The Dreamers.”8 Just as she blurred the boundaries between names, nationalities, and sexual identities, so Dinesen would put into question traditional generic boundaries separating fiction from fact, story from theory. “The Dreamers,” as its linguistic link to the autobiographical meditations quoted above suggests, is an intensely self-reflexive text. In its frame story Dinesen develops a poetics of displacement that, like “Echoes from the Hills,” equates dreaming, dis-ease, exile, and loss with the production of narrative.

The character who elaborates that figural conjunction in “The Dreamers” is one of the many tale-tellers who become their author's fictive doubles. Mira Jama, “the inventions of whose mind have been loved by a hundred tribes,” is a permanent outcast from his native land, a wanderer, who, having lost the ability to dream up new fictions, now dwells in and on the fictions made up in dreams:

“In my dreams I … carry with me something infinitely dear and precious, such as I know well enough that no real things be, and there it seems to me that I must keep this thing against some dreadful danger. … And it also seems to me that I shall be struck down and annihilated if I lose it. … The air in my dreams … is always very high, and I generally see myself as a very small figure in a great landscape. …

“You know, … that if, in planting a coffee tree, you bend the taproot, that tree will start, after a little time, to put out a multitude of small delicate roots near the surface. That tree will never thrive, nor bear fruit, but it will flower more richly than the others.

“Those fine roots are the dreams of the tree. As it puts them out, it need no longer think of its bent taproot. It keeps alive by them—a little, not very long. Or you can say that it dies by them, if you like, for really, dreaming is the well-mannered people's way of committing suicide.”

(“The Dreamers,” 276-77)

Dinesen would repeat these figures many years later in “Echoes from the Hills.” In “my dreams,” she writes there,

I move in a world deeply and sweetly familiar to me, a world which belongs to me and to which I myself belong more intensely than is ever the case in my waking existence. … The second characteristic of my dreams is their vastness, their quality of infinite space. I move in mighty landscapes, among tremendous heights, depths, and expanses and with unlimited views to all sides. … At times I feel that the fourth dimension is within reach. I fly, in dream, to any altitude, I dive into bottomless, clear, bottle-green waters. It is a weightless world. Its very atmosphere is joy, its crowning happiness, unreasonably or against reason, is that of triumph. For we have in the dream forsaken our allegiance to the organizing, controlling, and rectifying forces of the world, the Universal Conscience. We have sworn fealty to the wild, incalculable, creative forces, the Imagination of the Universe.


As its title suggests, this text, juxtaposed with “The Dreamers” and Out of Africa, sets up an echoic dialogue across the span of Dinesen's career, illuminating both the text of its author's life and the life of her texts. This exchange is extended in the companion story to “The Dreamers,” published in Last Tales in 1957, which treats the same protagonist at an earlier moment in her fictive history; its title, “Echoes,” suggests the degree to which Dinesen connected it with “The Dreamers,” Out of Africa, and “Echoes from the Hills”—that reminder and remainder of Out of Africa—as elements in a metatext, an extended interactive series of meditations on writing (in) exile. In the poetics of displacement inherent in these conjunctions, Dinesen not only associates exile and death, paradoxically, with creative “triumph,” but implicitly genders this figurative nexus. Her description of dreaming/fiction-making as a radical subversion of “the organizing, controlling and rectifying forces of the world,” a transgressive place of jouissance wherein “the wild, incalculable, creative forces” come into play, anticipates recent theoretical speculations on the “wild space” that women, as a culturally “muted” group, occupy “outside the dominant boundary” of the androcentric symbolic order (Showalter, 200).10 It is from this “elsewhere,” as Luce Irigaray has called it (76), that the possibilities of an other, feminine discourse may be imagined.

Peter Brooks has argued that “deviance is the very condition for life to be ‘narratable’: the state of normality is devoid of interest, energy, and the possibility for narration. In between a beginning prior to plot and an end beyond plot, the middle—the plotted text—has been in a state of error: wandering and misinterpretation” (139). Such a reading of narrativity raises acutely the question of woman, since phallocentric discourses have traditionally represented her as the most extreme example of deviance.11 In this context, then, an equivalency emerges between narrativity and femininity, each being construed, according to phallocentric law, as the principle of deviation, swerving—literally extra-vagance. And if the story of woman is the story of stories, then the greatest storyteller of all, potentially, would be woman herself, she who can both embody and engender the “narratable” by telling her own tale. In “The Dreamers,” as in many other texts, Dinesen sets up precisely such a possibility, suggesting that within the confines of patriarchal culture, those “wild, incalculable, creative forces” find their fullest expression in woman.

Consider first the storyteller through whose monologue about his authorial impotence Dinesen constructs a reflexive speculation on her own situation. Mira Jama is not only a permanent exile but a mutilated man—“the nose and ears of his dark head cut clear off.” Like “Isak Dinesen,” Mira—as the pun on his name suggests—is a reflection of his author, a masculine mask that doubles Karen Blixen's pseudonymy—hence an implicit sign of her multiply alienated status as a woman speaking (through) a masculine discourse. As a symbolic castration, his condition suggests an oblique play on the Freudian model of woman as castrated man. But his wounds also recall Dinesen's figurative dismemberment in another sense: the breakup of the Ngong farm and the severance from Africa that precipitated her own exile. As if to underscore this connection, the frame story takes place in a dhow sailing off the African coast.

Mira's inability to tell stories becomes, paradoxically, the precipitating condition for the story of a woman, a narrative recounted by Mira's companion Lincoln Forsner: “I will tell you a tale tonight, Mira … since you have none … [of] how I was, twenty years ago, taught … to dream, and of the woman who taught me.” I shall return to the problematics of the text's several male narrators, but first let us consider the tale of the woman who knew the art of dreaming, the narrative on which “The Dreamers” pivots. Through it, Dinesen obliquely tells not only her own story but the story of her stories as well.12


“A woman's (re)discovery of herself can only signify the possibility of not sacrificing any of her pleasures to another, of not identifying with anyone in particular, of never being simply one.”

—Luce Irigaray, This Sex That Is Not One

Briefly summarized, Forsner's narrative concerns the wanderings of Pellegrina Leoni, a renowned operatic diva—Prima Donna Assoluta—who loses her voice through injuries from a fire in the Milan opera house.13 This event precipitates her lifelong wanderings, a self-imposed exile from her former place and name, and her refusal to become “tied up” in a stable, permanent, unitary identity: “I will not be one person again. … I will be always many persons from now. Never again will I have my heart and my whole life bound up with one woman, to suffer so much” (“Dreamers,” 345). First fabricating her own “death” by erecting a monument inscribed with her name—literally turning self into text—Pellegrina begins a lifelong play, assuming new names, new personae, each time the old threaten to constrain her. This serial staging of perpetual difference from herself is aided by her loyal “friend” and “shadow” Marcus Cocoza, a wealthy Jew from Amsterdam, whose ambiguous relation to Pellegrina, like the male-authored narrative through which her story unfolds, becomes one of the story's principal interpretive conundrums.14

Forsner's narrative emerges as a series of flashbacks, generated from his own recollections and the tales told to him by two other male narrators, whom he had met “one winter night” twenty years before, in an inn “amongst mountains, with snow, storm, great clouds and wild moon outside” (279). Like Forsner himself, each of his companions has fallen in love with, and subsequently lost, an extraordinary, magnetic woman, who turns out, as they discover in conversation, to be the same person in different guises. They are able to read their “different” women as the same because of a mark imprinted on her body like a signature, “a long scar from a burn, which, like a little white snake, ran from her left ear to her collar bone” (285). Paradoxically, this stigma, which serves as proof of her identity, is also the hieroglyphic sign of its absence; emblematizing Pellegrina's lost voice, name and selfhood, it is the trace of the story—as yet untold—of how her wanderings began.

At the very moment their narratives are ending, a veiled woman enters the inn, as if called forth on cue from their discourse. She glances at the three companions and hastily departs but not before being recognized, belatedly, by her former lovers. Strangely desperate to elude them, she takes a coach upward toward an Alpine pass that leads through the otherwise impassable mountains, proceeding afoot after the coach becomes stuck in the snow. They follow, but their own carriage is halted by drifts. Continuing to pursue her in this space of unmarked, impassable terrain, amid “this wildness of the elements,” they enter a state like that of dreams or “fairy tale” (318), where time seems suspended and only hunter and hunted exist.

But here I would like to halt my own tracking of the story by raising a question: what do these men seek? What does this dream/woman mean? And what can we in the uncomfortable position as parallels to her fictional pursuers, read in the linguistic traces that represent her even as they mark her disappearance?

Pellegrina's peregrinations may appear picaresque, but the roles she chooses are not random: she becomes, successively, whore, revolutionary, and saint, thereby enacting three of the most overdetermined versions of “woman” available in Western patriarchal culture.15 But there is a difference, for by playing these roles to the full yet retaining the power to abandon them at will, she can remain at once inside and outside the semiotic systems that would codify woman according to androcentric logic, resisting even as she appears to fulfill traditional patriarchal categorizations of the feminine. In traversing the continuum that would polarize woman as virgin or whore, domesticated object or revolutionary agent, Pellegrina demonstrates the essential interchangeability—hence invalidity—of these oppositions. Exposing the provisionality and instability of masculine conceptions of woman, she threatens the very foundations of patriarchal culture, predicated, as feminist critics have demonstrated, on the control of women as both bodies and signs (see, for example, Beauvoir and Suleiman). Significantly, in role after role, Pellegrina flees involvement with a male lover whose desire would appropriate hers, claiming her permanently as his, writing her into his own script. She eludes these appropriations by flight, literally dropping out of (his) sight, fabricating another self, another script to be enacted elsewhere, hence stealing, in a sense that anticipates Hélène Cixous's play on the double meaning of voler (fly/steal), the very identity by which he would construct himself (89; see Herrmann).

Entering perpetual exile, Pellegrina casts herself as a moving signifier in several senses of that term, liberating herself from the domination of male speculations even as she deliberately solicits them. True to her names (pellegrina = wanderer; leoni/leone = lion), she is simultaneously rover and devourer, consuming those men who would consume her by fixing her as their object, putting her in her—their—place. Perpetually in flight, she makes exile itself into a source of creative energy. As every man's ideal Woman, she appears to be the ultimate embodiment of “le sexe” adored and feared by the masculine imagination that created it; but Dinesen, anticipating the redefinitions of Luce Irigaray (and investing with new meaning the operatic tradition of la donna mobile), subverts that masculine conception by representing Pellegrina as the “sexe qui n'en est pas un”—a multiple, mobile figure who cannot be encompassed—cannot be read—by the appropriative gaze of the other and who therefore escapes masculine hermeneutical control even as she acts as its ever-elusive object. If in this context Pellegrina seems to turn men into dreamers, the text suggests that they are victims not so much of a woman as of their own desire and of the fantasies that are its products: solipsistic mirror images that ultimately focus not on the woman, their putative object, but on themselves.16 Similarly, insofar as each of these men becomes in effect an author, seeking to inscribe and circumscribe Pellegrina within his own life text, her power as an artist is manifest precisely in the way her fictions, lionlike, swallow up—literally incorporate and thus transform—theirs.17

Yet the text never lets us forget that story cannot ultimately elude history, that it is, finally, a man's world from which Pellegrina seeks liberation, and that given the historical realities of that world for women, the condition of freedom may ultimately be death. Caught at “the pass,” Pellegrina faces an impasse of androcentric constructions. She is surrounded at last by former lovers whose echoic, relentlessly reiterated demand, “Tell me who you are” (325-26), is in fact a question of masculine identity: by being the woman I desire, tell me who I am; reflect me to myself.18

Overtaken—and potentially taken over—by those who would constrain and own her, Pellegrina answers the question of identity not with words but with a gesture that severs her from the consuming gazes that would hold her permanently as a mere reflection. Having already constituted herself as a signifier, she now puts herself literally en abîme, in a gesture that condenses and reenacts all her earlier flights/thefts: “She did not turn, or look at me. But the next moment she did what I always feared that she might do: she spread out her wings and flew away. Below the round white moon she made one great movement, throwing herself away from us all. … For one second she seemed to lift herself up with the wind, then running straight across the road, with all her might she threw herself from the earth clear into the abyss, and disappeared from our sight” (327).

Forsner and his companions rescue from this flight no more than what they would have made her from the outset: the shell of a woman, no longer resistant to their manipulations. Lying iconically “immovable” on a stretcher at the monastery to which they carry her, she is surrounded once more by the men who wait, at last, “to get an answer … of her” (328-29). Enclosed within a male space whose very name signifies oneness and incarceration (Greek monasterion = “hermit's cell,” from monos, “single”), claustrated within the monological discourse that reiterates the Law of the Same against the multiplicity that she had made the sign of both subjectivity and freedom, Pellegrina dies doubly—not only literally but by becoming the object of a final male narrative. It is the account of Marcus Cocoza, the wandering Jew who, having acted as “her shadow” throughout her exile, now proposes to tell her “true” story, to utter “her real name.” At its conclusion,

“She stirred upon the couch. … I looked at the Jew. It was obvious that he was terrified lest she should see him. … He shrank back and took shelter behind me. The next second she slowly looked up. … In spite of the Jew's move to hide himself, her gaze fell straight upon him. He stood quite still under it. … She tried to speak two or three times, without getting a sound out, and again she closed her eyes. But once more she opened them, looking again straight at him. When she spoke it was in her ordinary low voice, a little slowly, but without any effort.”


Her discourse engenders a fiction that returns her to the opera before the loss of voice, place, and identity: a dialogue that revives Pellegrina Leoni as creator, shaping Marcus Cocoza as a character in her script of desire, making his words the entrée into her own “song”—paradoxically a scene from Don Giovanni, the quintessential script of the phallic appropriation of woman:

“‘My little star,’ said he. … ‘It is sure to go well with you tonight. It is the second act of Don Giovanni; it is the letter air. It begins now with your recitative.’ … As she spoke [the] words of the old opera … her face broke, as the night-old ice on a pool was broken up when, as a boy, I threw a stone into it. It became like a constellation of stars, quivering in the universe. … ‘Oh,’ she cried, ‘look, look here! It is Pellegrina Leoni—it is she, it is she herself again,—she is back … on the stage again.’ … Of a sudden he took up his little walking stick and struck three short strokes on the side of the stretcher. ‘Donna Pellegrina Leoni,’ he cried in a clear voice. ‘En scène pour les deux. …’ She collected herself at his words. Within the next minute she became quiet in a gallant and deadly calm. … In one mighty movement, like that of a billow rising and sinking, she lifted the middle of her body. A strange sound, like the distant roar of a great animal, came from her breast. Slowly the flames in her face sank, and an ashen gray covered it instead. Her body fell back, stretched itself out and lay quite still, and she was dead.”


This final scene—like the complex relation of Pellegrina to the wandering Jew who “shadows” her or the letter on which the reenacted “scène” reflexively turns—invites contradictory readings. It is arguably an enactment of a deceptive and destructive deathbed delusion, born of hysteria, manipulated by the Mephistophelean character whose words—as seductive in their way as Don Giovanni's—direct the woman in her final moments, and culminating in a death precipitated by the incoherent “roar” that concludes her fantasy of return. In this context, she is indeed destroyed by the discourse that beckons her “en scène” before the engulfing masculine gaze, just as, on stage at the opera, “she would have died for”—indeed in the fire virtually did die for—her audiences (334).

But who, one wonders, controls whom? Who speaks through—and for—whom? In this discourse on the power of the name, whose name does Marcus Cocoza invoke? And what of Pellegrina's own voice? Her final “song” can be heard by the men who surround her only as incoherent noise—an uninterpretable “distant roar”—but Dinesen implies that for Pellegrina herself, it has an altogether other meaning, a liberatory potential that she herself has created by ventriloquizing her desire through Marcus's words, making him a mimetic means to her own end in both senses of that phrase. “If women are such good mimics,” remarks Irigaray, “it is because they are not simply reabsorbed in this function. They also remain elsewhere” (76).19 One might argue that in the final moments of Pellegrina's story, this subversive feminine “mimicry” is doubled, for Pellegrina “speaks” through both Marcus's discourse and her own, giving voice to an “elsewhere” that is hers alone, unfathomable to the men who hear it. That this moment marks the site of another story is reinforced by the echoes Dinesen sets up between the figure of Pellegrina as “star,” her face like “the night-old ice on a pool … broken up” or “a constellation of stars, quivering in the universe,” and Mira Jama's earlier reflections on stories/dreams as emerging from “a deep well” from which “there comes up a spring of water, which runs out in little streamlets to all possible sides, like the rays of a star” (“Dreamers,” 277). The text suggests that even as Marcus's story would impose on her his own “truth,” freezing her fluidity into some final rigid form, she ultimately shatters those alien(ating) narrative structures with her creative energy, turning him into the instrument for regaining her voice and her self—which is to say, her own fiction(s). Similarly, one might argue, Dinesen's narrative pervades and incorporates all the male-authored narratives in the text, using them at last to ventriloquize her own encompassing self-reflexive story, her own ineluctable “elsewhereness.”

But what does it mean to regain “oneself” in this context? The text suggests that being oneself is not the same as being one self. Paradoxically, Pellegrina Leoni is most herself when she is least herself: she “lives” most intensely as operatic actress, a figure quintessentially plural, a character, in the several senses of that word, who “sings” in many voices. For her (as for her author after the loss of Africa), “real life” is fiction and vice versa: the very interchangeability of those terms and the irresolvable ambiguity of their statement emblematizes the paradoxes Dinesen plays out in Pellegrina. Whether on the literal stage or in the stagings of life that she has enacted after leaving the opera, the fundamental truth about the self that Pellegrina enacts is that there may be no fundamental truth about the self: what she does, whether as diva or mask-wearing wanderer, in the theater as an imitation of life or in life as an imitation of theater, is to enact the self as a dynamic of displacement, to make literal the internal multiplicity that traditional unitary, monological conceptions of identity would repress. In this sense Pellegrina has never left the theater; hence her affirmation of “return”—“it is she, she herself again”—is inseparable from its qualifying conclusion: “on the stage again.”

Even in death, then, Pellegrina—like her author—resists reductive readings that would turn her into a sign “tied up” within another's discourse (347). Ultimately, the question of who is speaking in “The Dreamers” becomes as undecidable as Pellegrina's identity.20 This elusiveness of both woman and narrative finds a metaphor in the opening scene of the text, in the floating world in which the frame story transpires—a scene that anticipates the climactic conjunction of dreaming, fluidity, multiplicity, and illumination that figure Pellegrina's life and death. From the dhow moving on the midnight ocean, the ordinary, separable positionings of up and down, above and below, are rendered problematic, “bewildering,” as sky and sea become indistinguishable, mirroring one another in an infinite series of reflections:

as if something had happened to the world; as if the soul of it had been, by some magic, turned upside down. … The brightness of the moon upon the water was so clear that it seemed as if all the light in the world were in reality radiating from the sea, to be reflected in the skies. The waves looked solid as if one might safely have walked upon them, while it was into the vertiginous sky that one might sink and fall, into the turbulent and unfathomable depths of silvery worlds, forever silver reflected within silver, moving and changing. … The heavy waters sang and murmured.


In comparable ways, Dinesen dislocates her readers, sets them afloat as wanderers in the “vertiginous” world of her texts, at once lured and unmoored by the story of woman, which, like Pellegrina or the “heavy waters” beneath the floating dhow, has depths that “sing and murmur” in many voices—voices that from an androcentric perspective may appear indecipherable, “bewildering,” even incoherent, but that persistently invite another hearing, rewriting exile as exploration outside the bounds, a form of creative ecstasy.

As a mobile, endlessly inventive figure, Pellegrina inspires an ever-widening process of interpretation. Even after death, she continues to engender narratives:

“I have thought,” said Lincoln, “what would have happened to this woman if she had not died then? She might have been with us here tonight. … Or she might have gone with us into the highlands … and have been honored … as a great witch. In the end … she might perhaps have decided to become a pretty little jackal, and have made herself a den on the plain. … I have imagined that so vividly that on a moonlight night I have believed that I heard her voice amongst the hills. …” “Ah la la,” said Mira, … “I have heard that little jackal too. … She barks, ‘I am not one little jackal, not one; I am many. …’ And pat! in a second she really is another, barking just behind you: ‘I am not one little jackal. Now I am another.’”


Just so, Dinesen herself refuses final placement, proves equally resistant to finalizing readings. The story of the woman as artist and exile both enacts and explicates its author's own transgressive art, quintessentially the product of displacement, which remakes as it transcends the masculine models it appears to serve—a discourse of disclosure that invites yet always eludes interpretations. The name Leoni was also Dinesen's; “Lioness” was one of her many appellations, the sheer profusion of which, like Pellegrina's many names, suggests her refusal to be fixed by any single logos.21 Late in life, Dinesen would repeatedly speak of Pellegrina's lost voice as a figure for her own loss of Africa. Out of Africa, Dinesen conceived of her life as a form of exile, a living death, a “dream.” Yet by a great act of courage and imagination she would turn the space of that dream—the dislocations of that life—into the site for the engendering of her narratives. And if, as she ruefully remarked, she also died, figuratively, by turning herself in the process into inert “printed matter” (Daguerreotypes, 196), it is paradoxically through the displacements of writing that she continues to live, marking the place of exile as the ever-receding horizon of new readings.


  1. The phrase “my heart's land” comes from Karen Blixen's early poem “Ex Africa,” published in the Danish journal Tilskueren in 1925. For an English translation, see Gatura, n.p.

  2. For her configuration of Africa as mother, see Letters from Africa, 416, and Out of Africa, 356.

  3. “When in the early thirties coffee prices fell, I had to give up my farm. I went back to my own country, at sea-level, out of earshot of the echoes of the plain. … During this time my existence was without an answer from anywhere. … Under the circumstances I myself grew silent. I had, in every sense of the word, nothing to say. And yet I had to speak. For I had my books to write” (“Mottoes,” 10).

  4. For an analysis of Dinesen's writing as mourning see Aiken, “Isak Dinesen and Photo/Graphic Recollection,” 29-38. See also Langbaum, 119, on Out of Africa as a pastoral elegiac version of Paradise Lost; and Thurman, 282-84, on Out of Africa as a text of loss.

  5. On Dinesen's many names and pseudonyms, see Thurman, 6.

  6. Her analysis of Portia's use of male disguise in The Merchant of Venice obliquely comments on her own situation as a woman writing as a man: “In the performances of The Merchant of Venice which I have seen, Portia has, according to my view, been played incorrectly. In the court scene she has been all too solemn and doctrinaire. … Just as she sparkles in the entire comedy, … quick to laughter, so she should also, I think, sparkle in the closed, severely masculine world of the court. … Her magic lies precisely in her duplicity, the pretended deep respect for the paragraphs of the law which overlies her … quite fearless heresy” (“Oration at a Bonfire, Fourteen Years Late,” in Daguerreotypes and Other Essays, 82-83).

  7. Isaac (“the one who laughs”), born during his parents' exilic wanderings, occupies a uniquely “feminine” position by virtue of his name, which his mother, Sarah, bestowed on him as a sign of her own laughter. See Genesis 18:10-12, and 21:6. On the subversive implications of Dinesen's pseudonym, see Aiken, “Dinesen's ‘Sorrow Acre.’”

  8. Published as the sixth of Seven Gothic Tales (pp. 271-355), the text, like most of the Gothic tales, is perhaps more accurately characterized as a novella than as a short story because of its length. For discussions of how extensively Dinesen fictionalized her “autobiography,” see Thurman, 282-85, and Juhl.

  9. For an extension of the link between flying, woman's fiction-making, and the underwater world of the unconscious, see “The Diver,” in Dinesen's last collection, Anecdotes of Destiny, 16-20.

  10. Showalter is elaborating on the model proposed by Ardener, 3. See Cixous and Clément, 67-69.

  11. See, for example, Aristotle, Generation, I, ii; Politics, I, xii-xiii; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, Question 92; Rousseau, 109; Kierkegaard, 66-67; Freud, “Femininity.”

  12. For Dinesen's explicit identification of herself with Pellegrina Leoni, see Bjørnvig, 158-63. See also Thurman, 399-400. Significantly, after Forsner finishes his tale, the storyteller, Mira, Dinesen's double, claims it as his own: “I know all your tale. … I have heard it before. Now I believe that I made it myself” (“Dreamers,” 354).

  13. I am grateful to my student Lynn Gerou for reminding me of the use of the phrase Prima Donna Assoluta to characterize the greatest female singers. The phrase resonates at many levels with Dinesen's representation of woman in the text.

  14. Dinesen reinforces the reading of Pellegrina as a figure of and in exile through a complex nexus of literary reference. As Langbaum notes, “In Pellegrina, the allusions are so various and shifting that we cannot identify her with any one of them. … In her aspect of penitential pilgrim, she recalls the Wandering Jew; Marcus's presence helps us to make that connection. Marcus calls her a Donna Quixotta de la Mancha: ‘“the phenomena of life were not great enough for her; they were not in proportion with her own heart.”’ This connects her with Faust, still another wanderer; and since the force that makes her so effective in her metamorphoses … is an erotic force, she is also a female Don Juan. It is surely to make this connection that Isak Dinesen has the fire break out when Pellegrina is singing Mozart's Don Giovanni” (99). As I shall argue below, there are further implications in Dinesen's use of Don Giovanni. Space does not allow a thorough exploration of the intertextualities in “The Dreamers,” but each of the cases cited by Langbaum illustrates a strategy characteristic of Dinesen throughout her career: the appropriation and consequent revisionist interpretation of male-authored, androcentric texts—here classic texts of exile literally reembodied in woman, their male desire-in-narrative dislocated and replaced.

  15. As feminist scholarship has long recognized, the virgin and the whore serve as quintessential polar opposites on the symbolic spectrum representing woman in Western cultural history. See, for example, Warner, 49-67. Woman as the locus of revolution, a threat to the order of the state, is a recurrent topos in masculine discourses from antiquity on. See Pateman, 20-34.

  16. Dinesen's insight here has obvious similarities to Woolf's famous observation that “women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” (35) and to Irigaray's discussion of the “role of ‘femininity’” in Western culture: “The rejection, the exclusion of a female imaginary undoubtedly places woman in a position where she can experience herself only fragmentarily as waste or as excess in the little structured margins of a dominant ideology, this mirror entrusted by the (masculine) ‘subject’ with the task of reflecting and redoubling himself. The role of ‘femininity’ is prescribed moreover by this masculine specula(riza)tion and corresponds only slightly to woman's desire” (104).

  17. Cf. Cocoza's image of Pellegrina as “a python”: “You have no poison whatever in you, and if you kill it is by the force of your embrace. This quality upsets your lovers, who … have neither the strength to resist you, nor the wisdom to value the sort of death which they might obtain with you. … The sight of you unfolding your great coils to revolve around, impress yourself upon, and finally crush a meadow mouse is enough to split one's sides with laughter” (“Dreamers,” 337).

  18. The text makes a significant distinction at this point between Lincoln and the two other men who have pursued Pellegrina. Having reached her before them, Lincoln has come close to comprehending the intensity of her need for imaginative freedom. His willingness to participate with her in a new sort of play—in both senses—suggests that he may be capable of creating, with her, a new story in which the two might participate together, in genuine mutuality (322-24). The arrival of the two other lovers shatters the fragile “house” of fiction in which they take shelter (324). Driven by jealousy that has more to do with the other men than with the woman for whom they fight as for a rare trophy, Lincoln betrays Pellegrina: “She turned to me slowly, and looked at me, as if she were confident that I would be on her side. So I should have been, against all the world, ten minutes before, but it is extraordinary how quickly one is corrupted by bad company. When I heard these other people talking of their old acquaintance with her, I myself, who stood so much closer than the others, turned toward her. … ‘Tell them,’ I cried. ‘Tell them who you are!’” (326).

  19. See Nancy Miller's discussion of this passage in “Emphasis Added,” 38-39.

  20. On this question and its import for women and feminist criticism, see Foucault, and the debate between Kamuf (“Replacing Feminist Criticism”) and Miller (“The Text's Heroine”).

  21. See Out of Africa, 70, where Dinesen conflates this appellation with the figure of herself as text: “After Ismail had gone back to Somaliland, I had a letter from him which was addressed to Lioness Blixen, and opened: Honorable Lioness.

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———. “Isak Dinesen and Photo/Graphic Recollection.” exposure 23 (Winter 1985): 29-38.

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———. Generation of Animals. Translated by A. L. Peck. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1943.

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Bruce Bassoff (essay date summer 1990)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2221

SOURCE: Bassoff, Bruce. “Babette Can Cook: Life and Art in Three Stories by Isak Dinesen.” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no. 3 (summer 1990): 385-89.

[In the following essay, Bassoff finds thematic connections between three Dinesen stories: “The Diver,” “Babette's Feast,” and “The Ring.”]

In “The Diver,” the first story in Isak Dinesen's Anecdotes of Destiny, a young Softa (student) of the Koran decides to imitate the angels by imitating the creatures most like them: the birds. By learning to fly with homemade wings, he can learn, like the angels, to see the universe from above. Those in power, worried by the “new and revolutionary things” that the angels may tell the Softa, take advantage of his insufficient knowledge of the “real world, in which dreams are tested” (6), to undermine him. They hire a young dancing-girl to impersonate an angel and then to seduce him. Since his “unexpended vigor” makes him a great lover, however, the dancing-girl becomes fond of him and resentful of her employers. She tells him the truth and adds: “You cannot expect a dancing girl to be an angel” (10). Disillusioned, he leaves the village.

In the second part of the story, the storyteller tells of his travels to the villages of the pearl-fishers, where he collects tales that he compares to pearls: as “disease turned into loveliness,” as secrets “transparent and opaque” at the same time (12). He hears of a man named Elnazred, whose great happiness on land is earned by his “demoniacal” ability to dive to greater depths than the other fishermen and to bring up the finest pearls. This famous diver turns out to be the Softa, who has gone to the bottom of the sea and learned wisdom from the fish. Since the fish, however, have never fallen—have never, for example, tasted the burning pain of love—their wisdom is smug and limited: it will “please the men of business and their wives” (16). The implication is that the Softa has gone from naive idealism to bourgeois smugness (Stambaugh 182).

Structuring this story are plot elements that we find also in “The Ring” and “Babette's Feast”: a desire for transcendence (represented by the motifs of birds and angels); a fall (or its refusal) caused by the “real world” in which “dreams are tested”; and either new knowledge or resignation, true art or its simulacrum. In “The Ring” Lise, a young, wealthy newlywed wife, muses over her happiness. Unlike the Softa, who wants to transcend everyday life through converse with an angel, Lise feels like the angel herself: the “distant paradise” she shares with her husband has “descended to earth” and is “filled with the things of everyday life” (235). If the artist, as we are told in “The Diver,” seeks secrets from the depths, our domestic angel finds freedom in the fact that she has no secret from her husband, whom she wants to obey in everything. Though she does everything “gravely and solicitously,” she knows that she is playing (236). Like the fish in “The Diver,” who are “upheld and supported on all sides” (17), Lise lacks gravity. Unlike the veiled dancer in “The Diver,” who understands how the world works, she has no interest in the real world. From time to time, however, a blush—a version of the “burning” decried by the fish in “The Diver”—unveils her innermost being. When this diffusion of blood occurs in the outside world, where it betokens the need and mortality she has ignored, she is humanized.

A thief, hungry and desperate, has killed and taken a sheep and killed a man who tried to stop him. When the sheepmaster compares the thief to a wolf, Lise remembers pleasurably the wolf in “Little Red Ridinghood,” but she criticizes her husband for sympathizing with the thief. Like those in power in “The Diver,” she fears “revolutionary” ideas (238). As she walks back to the house, she surveys a landscape that for her is full of promise. Still playing at life, she decides to hide from her husband to make him feel “what a void” life would be without her. Hiding in a “narrow space like a small alcove” that she finds in the woods (239), she discovers, however, someone very foreign to her make-believe world: the beleaguered thief. During a silent exchange of looks, she sees herself with his eyes and discovers that life is both more and less than imagined promises.

The thief makes a gesture that is both threatening and sexual: “He moved his right arm till it hung down straight before him between his legs. Without lifting the hand he bent the wrist and slowly raised the point of the knife till it pointed at her throat” (241). While she offers him her wedding ring—in the hope he will disappear and allow her to pretend that he never was—he takes her handkerchief and wraps it round his knife, which he fits into its sheath. Then he closes his eyes and frees her.

She is no longer free, however, as she was when she had no secret and wanted only to obey her doting husband. She loses her wedding ring, which the thief discards in the woods, but finds in its loss an emblem of life's limits: “With this lost ring she had wedded herself to something. To what? To poverty, persecution, total loneliness. To the sorrows and the sinfulness of this earth” (244). While “The Diver” goes beyond the Softa's fall to his subsequent but premature equilibrium, “The Ring” ends with the heroine's fall—into material scarcity, sexuality, and death.

“Babette's Feast” begins in a place that resembles Lise's alcove: in the “long narrow arm of the sea” that is the story's setting. The town associated with the fjord reminds one of Lise's play world, looking “like a child's toy-town of little wooden pieces painted gray, yellow, pink and many other colors” (23). However, the two sisters with whom the story occupies itself are far from frivolous; they and the other members of their father's sect renounce the pleasures of this world, which they hold as illusions, and long for the New Jerusalem. Though the sisters are admirable among Dinesen's women for their lack of disguise or pretense, their unthinking obedience to their father and their fear of life outside their fjord make them, like Lise, shallow. In fact, when the story begins, the father is dead, but they and the others still draw on his personality, which is now “evaporating” (39).

Though untouched, like the fish in “The Diver,” by “the flames of this world” (25), the sisters have had their opportunities. Martine once captured the heart of a profligate young officer, Lorens Loewenhielm, who, like the Softa in “The Diver,” wanted a “gentle, golden-haired angel to guide and reward him” (26). The Softa had intercourse—both verbal and sexual—with his presumed angel but could not accept her as a human being. Lorens found nothing to say to his. Feeling more and more “insignificant and contemptible,” he finally relinquished his ideal: “I have learned here that fate is hard, and that in this world there are things which are impossible!” (27). Like the Softa, moreover, he gained worldly success, but unlike the Softa he continued to doubt the wisdom of his choice. Philippa's admirer was Achille Papin, a famous singer from Paris who was visiting Norway. Unlike Lorens, who could not express his love, Achille expressed his, but only by means of Mozart's Don Giovanni. That expression led to his dismissal. Though the sisters, unfallen, continued to read and interpret “the Word,” they never found words of their own to interpret their worldly experiences. And neither imagined that the other had been “surprised and frightened by something in her own nature” (32).

Into this world—as narrow in its way as Lise's—comes another foreigner, Babette, who reminds us of Lise's comments about her husband's “revolutionary” tendencies. Babette has been a Communard in the short-lived revolution of 1871 and has lost all she possessed. She arrives in Berluraag with a letter of introduction from Achille Papin, who recalls to the sisters his failure of fifteen years before and writes to Philippa that in Paradise she will sing, “without fears or scruples, as God meant [her] to sing” (34). Fulfilled as a great artist, she will enchant the angels. Babette, he adds, “can cook”—one of the great understatements in world literature. It is Babette who, without waiting for Paradise, will create “without fears or scruples.” If the sisters are shallow, Babette is “deep”: “In the soundings of her being there were passions, there were memories and longings of which they [the sisters] knew nothing at all” (38); and that is why she, not Philippa, is the artist. Like the thief in “The Ring,” who, ragged and injured, conquers Lise by the magnetic power of hard experience, Babette has “magnetic qualities” (35). Like the Softa in “The Diver,” she has lost everything, but unlike the Softa she has lost it through social idealism—idealism, in fact, that contradicts her personal interests. Though the Softa regains his fortune, its worth is problematic. When Babette wins the French lottery, she becomes “strangely collected” (44) as she prepares to expend both her fortune and herself in a work of art.

When the foreign Babette first appears, the narrator says of the people's alarm and then acceptance, “The stone which the builders had almost refused had become the headstone of the corner” (37). One is reminded of Luke 20:17: “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the headstone of the corner.” Unlike Christ, Babette is not rejected, but her alarming (=foreign) aspects again come to the fore when she prepares a French meal for the brothers and sisters of the sect. Of the ingredients she brings back from France, the most alarming one is a turtle: “in the light of the lamp it looked like some greenish-black stone,” which emits, however, “a snake-like head” (45; emphasis mine). While the “stone” reminds us of the “headstone of the corner”—almost rejected but cautiously accepted—the “snake-like head” suggests the serpent in Eden, and the foreign knowledge it imparts.

In this crisis, the old people decide to partake of the meal but to say nothing about it. Though the tongue is an “unruly evil, full of deadly poison,” they anticipate a day on which their master will “purify them of all delight or disgust of the senses” and cleanse their tongues of all taste (46-47). One of their number is well on the way toward that goal since she is “stonedeaf” and has “lost all sense of smell or taste” (47). In these straitened circumstances, then, Babette displays her culinary genius, which opens up the sensibilities of those she serves: “Taciturn old people received the gift of tongues; ears that for years had been almost deaf were opened to it” (61).

The only guest at dinner who can consciously appreciate Babette's art is Lorens Loewenhielm, now General Loewenhielm, who is visiting again in the vicinity. His breast covered with decorations, he struts and shines “like an ornamental bird, a golden pheasant or a peacock” (50-51), but unlike the artist he cannot fly. Intending to dominate the conversation of the dinner table, he is silenced by Babette's art, which recreates miraculously the social harmony that has been lost since the father's death.

Babette combines in herself the idealism of the young Lorens, the worldly knowledge of the General, and the self-abnegation of the guests. The guests believe that one eats and drinks in the right spirit only if one has “firmly renounced all ideas of food and drink” (58). Babette renounced such ideas when she fought against the only people who could understand her culinary genius. The guests believe that “the only things which we may take with us from our life on earth are those which we have given away!” (59). To produce her art, Babette gives away everything. “Through all the world,” she says, “there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost” (68).

Babette, then, is a Lise who has not only encountered life's limits but has also lost everything she had in trying to change some of them—through social revolution. In her new situation, moreover, she refuses, as Thomas Whissen points out, to find anything negative about her frugal conditions: “She splits cod and makes beer soup with the same care with which she later prepares cailles en sarcophage and turtle soup” (43). Her art, then, overcomes communal squabbles and fearful resistance to create a moment of grace and harmony. As for herself, Babette says, “A great artist … is never poor” (67). In contrast with Babette, the titular character of “The Diver,” the erstwhile Softa, replenishes his wealth with almost effortless ease. Unlike Babette, who has participated in great historical events, the diver has no story to tell: “What happened to me … after I left Shiraz, makes no story at all” (16). Though he brings up the finest pearls from the depths, the art they represent is shallow—the kind of stuff with which one diverts businessmen and their wives. Unlike Babette, whose art—infused with a mature and caring spirit—creates social equilibrium, the diver's equilibrium is his own.

Works Cited

Dinesen, Isak. Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard. New York: Vintage, 1985.

Stambaugh, Sara. “Imagery of Entrapment in the Fiction of Isak Dinesen.” Scandinavica 22.2 (November 1983): 182.

Whissen, Thomas. Isak Dinesen's Aesthetics. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1973.

Ted Billy (essay date August 1990)

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SOURCE: Billy, Ted. “Dinesen's ‘Ring’: Matrimonial Götterdämmerung.Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 11, nos. 3-4 (August 1990): 324-31.

[In the following essay, Billy analyzes Dinesen's allusions to Norse and Teutonic mythology and Richard Wagner's The Ring cycle in order to provide insight into the feminist themes of “The Ring.”]

Strangely enough, feminist critics have not actively promoted the literary reputation of Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Karen Blixen), perhaps because Dinesen eschews ideology in her fiction, restricting her creativity solely to her artistic objectives. Viewing existence as a seriocomic puppet show ruled by manipulative passions and obsessions, she espouses no party line in following the dictates of her metaphysical imagination. Gradually, her reputation as a masterful story-teller has begun to evolve into a belated recognition of Dinesen as one of the major literary artists of the twentieth century. In recent years, one of her less familiar stories has found its way into anthologies of fiction by and about women. “The Ring,” the final tale in her Anecdotes of Destiny, has never received the high praise given to the stories in her more famous collections, Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa. Nevertheless, it remains as provocative and puzzling today as on its date of publication. “The Ring” dramatizes a woman's struggle to maintain an independent identity within the confines of a claustrophobic marital union.

The plot of Dinesen's short story is deceptively simple. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, a young Danish squire named Sigismund and his new bride Lovisa (more commonly called Lise) stroll out to the sheepfold on a pleasant July morning. After hearing about a fugitive who has committed a murder in the attempt to steal sheep in the vicinity. Sigismund asks Lise to return to the house, but at a leisurely pace, so that he may rejoin her on the way back. While sauntering through the meadow she decides to play a little trick upon her husband by secluding herself in a hidden glade. Making her way through the shrubbery, Lise enters her private “sylvan closet” only to encounter the fugitive thief, who is injured and clad in rags. Without a word she offers her wedding ring to the thief, but he kicks it away and instead picks up her fallen handkerchief, which he wraps around his dagger before sheathing it. After the fugitive departs, Lise returns to the path in a subdued mood. When Sigismund rejoins his bride, she tells him that she has “lost” her ring. The story closes with her enigmatic denials to her husband's questions about where and when she had lost the ring.

In Robert Langbaum's interpretation of the story, the sexual symbolism implicit in the encounter with the thief underscores the spiritual void in Lise's marriage to Sigismund. Yet the conclusion Langbaum draws from this confrontation seems to contradict the other elements in the story: “When, lying to her husband she tells him she has lost her wedding ring, she realizes that she has now married two men. … Only now … when she has this secret from her husband, is her marriage to him fully consummated.”1 This notion of a full consummation, whether ironic or not, tends to oversimplify the intricate tapestry of Dinesen's artistic narrative. To gain a greater appreciation of the complex meaning of this epiphany, one must take into account the pervasive imagery of liberation in the story, as well as the mythical/historical source of the husband's name: Sigismund. After taking these elements into consideration, we can gain a better understanding of Lise's fate, viewing it as an archetypal fable of spiritual emancipation, not as a tragic tale of conjugal submission.

Dinesen's selection of a mythical name for Lise's husband demonstrates the elaborate allusiveness of her art. Sigismund was a quasi-historical king of the Burgundians whose second wife betrayed him by sanctioning the murder of her stepson.2 But the name Sigismund also calls to mind Sigmund (or Siegmund), a heroic figure in the Norse Volsunga Saga and the closely-related Teutonic Nibelungenlied, which formed the basis for Wagner's operatic tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The title of Dinesen's story alludes not only to The Ring cycle, but also to numerous symbolic references to rings in Wagner's mythological sources. In the Volsunga Saga, Sigmund and Signy are twin offsprings of Volsung, a wise ruler favored by Odin, Dissatisfied by her coerced marriage to the usurper Siggeir, Signy decides to give birth to a child of pure Volsung blood to help Sigmund overthrow her husband. To do so, she seduces her twin brother, who does not recognize her because of an enchanted spell. Years later, Sigmund and Sinfiotl (the offspring of the incestuous union) encircle Siggeir and his whole court in a ring of flames. Signy briefly emerges from the fiery ring only to whisper the secret of Sinfiotl's birth to Sigmund before leaping back into the flames to meet her doom.3 Later, Sigmund's wife Borghild poisons Sinfiotl (a treacherous act corresponding to the betrayal of Sigismund of Burgundy by his second wife).

The birth of Sigmund's son Sigurd (called Siegfried in The Nibelungenlied) initiates another series of violent episodes concerning the theft of the magic ring of Andwari. Though he knows that the ring bears a curse, Sigurd perseveres in acquiring it and bestows it upon Brunhild, after riding through an enchanted ring of flames to win her hand in marriage. But Sigurd must enter the ring a second time, magically disguised as Gunnar, King of the Nibelungs, who craves Brunhild for his own. The enchanted Sigurd, unaware of his first encounter with Brunhild, wrests the ring from her and gives it to his bride Gudrun (also known as Kriemhild), Gunnar's sister. When Brunhild sees the magic ring (Sigurd's former pledge of constancy) on Gudrun's finger, she vows revenge. After Sigurd's treacherous murder by Hogni (Hagen), Brunhild repents and kills herself; her body is placed on Sigurd's funeral pyre so that both corpses can be consumed by the circle of flames, as she had requested.4 Years later, Gudrun concludes the epic of faithlessness and betrayal by murdering her husband Atli, King of the Huns, after he has treacherously slain her brother Gunnar and his kinsmen. Prior to killing her husband, she informs him that he has just feasted on the flesh and blood of their children.

If the epic of Sigmund and Sigurd is a bloodbath of faithless husbands and treacherous wives, Dinesen's more decorous “The Ring” is a tempest-in-a-teapot, almost a comedy of manners. She employs the central image of the ring not only as a closed circle encompassing the married couple in an intimate union (an objectification of the marital vows uniting husband and wife in a permanent bond), but also as an emblem of social collectivity and continuity. The ring symbolizes the artificial unity ritualized in the wedding ceremony: “To God and man they were one.”5 Indeed, the story opens on a note of disparity, for the wedding takes place only after Lise's haughty parents reconcile themselves to Sigismund's inferiority in rank and wealth. One week after their wedding, intimations of disillusionment begin to intrude upon their conjugal bliss: “Their distant paradise had descended to earth and had proved, surprisingly, to be filled with the things of everyday life” (p. 235). Lise believes in her husband's promise of constant devotion. She even imagines that “she moved and breathed in perfect freedom because she could never have any secret from her husband” (p. 235). Initially, Dinesen dramatizes Lise as a rustic Alice-in-Wonderland who views her newly-wedded life as a delightful fairy tale. Lise's conception of adult existence is myopic; naively, she cherishes the enchantment of role-playing, the notion of a make-believe maturity: “and all the time she knew one was playing” (p. 236). Identified with her white frock and small white dog (suggesting that the young bride has not yet entered the world of experience), Lise retains her innocence even after her wedding night's initiation into the rites of womanhood.

Dinesen also draws attention to Lise's dualistic perception of her husband's profession. Although Lise admires Sigismund's knowledge of sheep-breeding, she also views his narrow intellectual range as symptomatic of her husband's childishness: “What an absurd person he is, with his sheep! What a baby he is! I am a hundred years older than he” (p. 236). When Mathias (the old sheepmaster) mentions the thief, Lise evasively directs her thoughts to more pleasant matters, while her husband asks for more specific information. But Dinesen does not permit the young wife to remain oblivious to the threatening emissary from the outside world of risk and hazard, for Lise's attention recoils to the sensational news of the fugitive's lawlessness: “This thief … had broken into the sheepfolds of the neighborhood like a wolf, had killed and dragged away his prey like a wolf and like a wolf had left no trace after him” (p. 237). Dinesen's atavistic simile accentuates the contrast between the predatory thief and the sheep in squire's clothing who is Lise's husband. (Moreover, Lise's formal first name, Lovisa, may be a verbal play on the German word Löwe, meaning “lion.”6 If so, it reinforces the development of the story, as Lise subtly renounces her attachment to her sheep-oriented husband after her encounter with the wolf-like thief.) As she listens to the account of the fugitive's murderous escape, Lise evinces a subconscious attraction to the irrationality embodied in the thief: “She remembered Red Ridinghood's wolf, and felt a pleasant little thrill running down her spine” (p. 237).

When Lise shudders at the sight of the sick lambs being examined by the shepherds, Sigismund sends his wife home to spare her feelings. Yet Dinesen cannot resist adding an ironic edge to Lise's dismissal from the scene: “So she was turned away by an impatient husband to whom his sheep meant more than his wife” (p. 238). Yet Lise paradoxically finds her dismissal liberating: “As she walked she felt a great new happiness in being altogether alone” (p. 238). This seems to suggest her inward yearning for freedom from the constraints of married life, yet Dinesen depicts the young wife's consciousness as blissfully tranquil and unruffled: “She could not remember that she had ever before in all her life been altogether alone. The landscape around her was still, as if full of promise, and it was hers. Even the swallows cruising in the air were hers, for they belonged to him, and he was hers” (pp. 238-39). Lise's exultation in this unique feeling of solitude, momentarily free of familial and matrimonial ties, accommodates her illusion that all nature (including Sigismund) is her possession. This marks the pivotal point in her existence, for from this moment on she begins to divest herself of her traditional function as an adjunct of her husband, as Dinesen dramatizes a spiritual breach of faith between man and wife.

Lise's decision to steal away into the hidden alcove exemplifies her subconscious wish “to be gone, to have vanished from the surface of the earth from him” (p. 239; my emphasis). Her escapist impulse leads her away from the civilized world of social obligations and draws her toward a raw, dynamic, organic realm that she enters by “gently forcing her way into the shrubbery” (p. 239). When she had first discovered the secret alcove, Lise believed that she had come upon the “heart of her new home”—untainted natural splendor—and now she desires to return to its security to “stand perfectly still there, hidden from all the world” (p. 239). She exhibits a naive wishful thinking when she hopes that her temporary disappearance will make her husband realize “what a void, what an unendurably sad and horrible place the universe would be when she was no longer in it” (p. 240). With a deft touch Dinesen objectifies Lise's progressive emancipation in a series of revealing physical gestures that foreshadow a radical departure in the customary relationship of husband and wife:

When a twig caught the flounces of her simple skirt she loosened it softly from the muslin, so as not to crack it. Once a branch took hold of one of her long golden curls; she stood still, with her arms lifted, to free it. … [T]he hem of her dress caught her foot and she stooped to loosen it.

(p. 240; my emphasis)

These delicately described maneuvers (all cited from the same paragraph) document Dinesen's subtle affirmation of Lise's advancement toward spiritual independence.

The sudden confrontation with the wounded thief puts Lise face to face with her symbolic alter-ego: “He was about her own age” (p. 240). Almost immediately, she identifies with the atavistic fugitive, as their silent encounter seems to last an eternity: “This meeting in the wood from beginning to end passed without a word; what happened could only be rendered by pantomime. To the two actors in the pantomime it was timeless” (pp. 240-41). Dinesen compares the thief to a “ghost” or “apparition,” yet he still behaves like a wounded animal, a symbolic Beast in the Jungle, for “the alcove had been turned into a covert” (p. 241). Here Dinesen's word-smithing forges a felicitous juxtaposition, for the word alcove suggests a recessed space for the display of statuary (analogous to the rigid role traditionally imposed on wives), whereas covert implies a woodland or shrubbery serving as shelter for game, Dinesen's wordplay prefigures her protagonist's eventual transformation from domesticated role-player to instinctive, independent selfhood: “she seemed to see herself with the eyes of the wild animal at bay in his dark hiding-place: her silently approaching white figure, which might mean death” (p. 241). Death, in this context, also refers to the termination of Lise's former, unthinking identity, the persona who defined herself as an extension of her husband. Perceiving her situation through the eyes of the thief, she beholds a kind of symbolic erection: “He moved his right arm till it hung down straight before him between his legs. Without lifting the hand he bent the wrist and slowly raised the point of the knife till it pointed at her throat. The gesture was mad, unbelievable” (p. 241). This “mad” gesture not only rivets Lise's attention but also accentuates her disaffection from her husband. When the fugitive slowly sheathes his knife, he knows he can count on her complicity.

Dinesen complicates this scene by providing no explicit reason for Lise's offering of her wedding ring to the thief. It does not constitute (as one might expect) the bribe of a threatened person to a hostile interloper. Instead, Lise seems in control of the situation:

She did not bargain for her life. She was fearless by nature, and the horror with which he inspired her was not fear of what he might do to her. She commanded him, she besought him to vanish as he had come, to take a dreadful figure out of her life, so that it should never have been there. In the dumb movement her young form had the great authoritativeness of a priestess conjuring down some monstrous being by a sacred sign.

He slowly reached out his hand to hers, his finger touched hers, and her hand was steady at the touch. But he did not take the ring. As she let it go it dropped to the ground as her handkerchief had done.

(p. 242)

Like a pagan enchantress presiding over her magic ritual, Lise offers the thief the symbol of her marital fidelity. (Here Dinesen also mocks the traditional marriage ceremony, in which sex and security become exchangeable commodities.) But the ring is no talisman, and the silent communion between the two strangers dissipates when the fugitive rejects her gift. After he kicks her ring away, she experiences an epiphany: “she felt that … something happened, things were changed” (242). When the thief stoops down to pick up her fallen handkerchief and wrap it around his knife, the chivalrous gesture transforms his outward appearance: “his face under the dirt and sun-tan slowly grew whiter till it was almost phosphorescent” (p. 243). Here Dinesen links the fugitive to Lise's primal whiteness, implying a symbolic correspondence, a union of spirits reinforced by sexual undertones: “he once more stuck the knife into the sheath. Either the sheath was too big and had never fitted the knife, or the blade was much worn—it went in. … [H]e lifted his own face a little, the strange radiance still upon it, and closed his eyes” (p. 243).

Had Dinesen ended the story at this point, one might readily agree with Langbaum's conclusion that Lise has symbolically married two husbands. But she clearly suggests the young bride's emancipation from both male characters in the denouement, which begins when Lise exorcises the thief: “he did what she had begged him to do: he vanished and was gone. She was free” (p. 243). But her spiritual emancipation suggests freedom from something rather than freedom to do something, as her reunion with her husband indicates. Outside the alcove, on the path leading to the house, Lise and Sigismund proceed in a manner that belies their newlywed status: “The path here was so narrow that he kept half behind her and did not touch her. … She walked a step before him and thought: All is over” (p. 243; my emphasis). All is over between husband and wife, as implicated in Sigismund's obtuse response to Lise's declaration that she has lost her wedding ring: “‘What ring?’” (p. 243). Moreover, Dinesen interrupts the closing dialogue to insert a familiar passage from the time-honored ceremonial wedding vows, interspersed with ironic commentary on the actual situation underlying the idealistic rhetoric of spiritual consummation:

“With this ring”—dropped by one and kicked away by another—“with this ring I thee wed.” With this lost ring she had wedded herself to something. To what? To poverty, persecution, total loneliness. To the sorrows and the sinfulness of this earth. “And what therefore God has joined together let man not put asunder.”

(p. 244)

These hyperbolic interjections establish Lise's role as a fugitive from marital constraints. Her refusal to retrieve her ring signals Lise's conviction that her marriage has been “put asunder,” for she makes no effort to tell her husband about her experience or to return to the intimacy they shared prior to her encounter. Her lost ring now signifies alienation from her matrimonial role. When Sigismund tells Lise he will give her another ring and assures her that they are still man and wife, he only reveals his spiritual myopia. Like the thief, he also resorts to a chivalrous gesture, an empty posturing when viewed in the context of Dinesen's twilight of traditional role-models: “He took her hand and kissed it. It was cold, not quite the same hand as he had last kissed” (p. 244).

“The Ring” closes with Lise's triple iteration of the word no in response to her husband's inquiries about where she might have lost the emblem of their marital unity. Dinesen concludes the story on a solemn note of resignation reflecting the radical transformation of Lise's sensibility—a metamorphosis that poisons her mind against conventional notions of marriage. It is no longer proper to speak of these characters as husband and wife, although Sigismund continues to think of Lise as his bride, even though she no longer wears her wedding ring. Dinesen nullifies the symbolic function of the ring as a token of the divinely sanctioned union of man and woman. This transformation occurs entirely within the mind of Lise; its only outward manifestation is her refusal to provide Sigismund with information about the location of the ring. The author of Anecdotes of Destiny, of course, was well acquainted with the unfortunate consequences that may ensue from a fateful wedding. Dinesen's unsuccessful alliance with her husband and her struggle to become a genuinely independent woman in Africa may have inspired her fictive dramatization of the disillusionment inherent in human relationships. In “The Ring” Dinesen unfolds the timeless tale of a woman who must learn to live without illusions in a world in which her social identity has rigidified into the role of a mere handmaiden to the male ego. Her final scene, with its conspicuous negations following the organic imagery of liberation, dramatizes an isolated moment of consciousness in the life of her protagonist. Dinesen, the puppet-master of modern literature, converts the snipping of a puppet's strings into an anecdote of human destiny. In her recognition of the ring of truth that lies beyond artificial conventions, Lise achieves a qualified triumph over fate. Thus, Dinesen's dark tale of disillusionment presents prophecy without propaganda.


  1. Robert Langbaum, Isak Dinesen's Art: The Gayety of Vision (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 273.

  2. George K. Andersen, The Saga of the Volsungs (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1982), p. 31. See also Gudmund Schutte, Sigfried und Brunhild (Copenhagen: 1935), and Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum, ed. Henri Omont (Paris: 1886), 3 sec. 5 and 4 sec. 25. Sigismund, Emperor of Germany, lived from 1368 to 1437.

  3. Thomas Bulfinch, Myths and Lehends: The Golden Age, ed. George H. Godfrey (Boston: David D. Nickerson, n.d.), pp. 438-41.

  4. Bulfinch, pp. 444-52.

  5. Isak Dinesen, “The Ring,” in Anecdotes of Destiny (New York: Random House, 1958), p. 236. All subsequent references to this work pertain to this edition and will appear in the text.

  6. I am indebted to Milena Davison for this helpful suggestion.

An earlier version of this essay was presented at the University of Minnesota International Symposium on “Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen: Tradition, Modernity, and Other Ambiguities,” on April 20, 1985.

Morten Kyndrup (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Kyndrup, Morten. “The Vertigo of Staging: Authority and Narration in Isak Dinesen's ‘The Roads Round Pisa’.” In Isak Dinesen: Critical Views, edited by Olga Anastasia Pelensky, pp. 333-45. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1992, Kyndrup provides a stylistic analysis of “The Roads Round Pisa.”]


Isak Dinesen's writings constitute a very special world of their own within twentieth-century fiction. And it is far from coincidental that to readers as well as to critics they appear as an illuminated island. One reason of course is the indisputable mastery of her narrative constructions; those in themselves will guarantee her a front-rank position. But moreover it is perhaps the peculiar state of non-contemporarity in Dinesen's work which is the main reason for their ability still to appear as open, inviting, attractive—and still mystically indefinite. This “non-contemporarity” is not only what characterizes the immediate relationship between the very form of Dinesen's works and their time (her contemporary world literature is signed with names such as Joyce, Proust, Virginia Woolf—and appears somewhat different). No, the non-contemporarity, the clash between times (or the clash between discourses, to be semiotically more precise) is also inherent in the works. What we have in mind here is not the thematic transmission of the action into landscapes of the past, although this transmission indeed is an important feature of the constructions. No, the clash takes place above all between on the one hand the narrative construction which (seemingly) is in charge, and which even at the time of publication was emphatically outdated, and on the other hand a theme which on a closer look is tremendously modern. Any reader of Dinesen's narratives, professional or amateur (or the rare combination of both), is thus simultaneously thrown in several different directions. Within one register she is thrown back into an almost premodern discourse not only because of the concrete rooms of action and the obviously old-fashioned olympic, narrative construction, but also qua the critique of the individuals' projectuality of controlling reality which, apparently rooted in a feudal-absolutist state of thinking, is emphatically and repeatedly exercised in the points of the intrigues as to attitudes. At the same time, however, behind the apparent “naturalness” of these narrative constructions, this critique is indeed surprisingly modern. And, finally, is perhaps already (modally) “postmodern” qua its relaxed and virtually self-ironical accepting embodiment of the emphatically importunate undecidability of the problem of enunciation; this is remarkably different from the way contemporary modernism felt itself more or less involuntarily prisoned by a tragic feeling of loss of substance, evoked by the very same experience.

These clashes of discourse include and point out the problem of discoursive change in the works, and this is no doubt one reason why Dinesen's works are still able to fascinate.


“The Roads Round Pisa” has an important position in Isak Dinesen's first real work, Seven Gothic Tales of 1934: as the fourth of the seven tales it forms the center of the book. In the Danish version of the following year, Syv Fantastiske Fortœllinger, the tale was placed in the front, as the opening; this further emphasizes the importance of the fact that the protagonist in “The Roads Round Pisa” also acts as subordinate figure in the last tale of the collection, “The Poet.” We shall return to this later.1

The central position seems to be substantially well-founded in every way, for “The Roads Round Pisa” appears in thematical concentration as well as in narrative structure as virtually archetypal for the tales of the book.

“The Roads Round Pisa” is built as an ingenious hybrid between on the one hand a narration of a central perspective and on the other hand a cycle of narrations, thus marking many different narrators' perspectives. As the focus of the one-point perspective we find the young Danish nobleman Augustus von Schimmelmann travelling in Italy in 1823. He is trying to run away from problems at home (problems concerning an extremely jealous wife), and he is above all searching for truth. Even from the start of the tale he seems to have a critical attitude towards truth as objective and absolute:

How difficult it is to know the truth. I wonder if it is really possible to be absolutely truthful when you are alone. Truth, like time, is an idea arising from, and depending upon, human intercourse. What is the truth about a mountain in Africa that has no name and not even a footpath across it? The truth about this road is that it leads to Pisa, and the truth about Pisa can be found within books written and read by human beings. What is the truth about a man on a desert island? And I, I am like a man on a desert island. When I was a student my friend used to laugh at me because I was in the habit of looking at myself in the looking-glasses, and had my own rooms decorated with mirrors. They attributed this to personal vanity. But it was not really so. I looked into the glasses to see what I was like. A glass tells you the truth about yourself.

(p. 165)

Augustus is in a state of contemplative searching, though rather passive. He becomes the witness of a series of violent incidents, which finally turn out to be different sequences of one and the same story, indeed even connected to his own life story.

At first Augustus witnesses a carriage accident; the passenger—Augustus thinks it is a man, but it turns out to be a (noble)woman—is severely injured. She confides to him the dramatic story of her relationship with her granddaughter and asks him to bring a message to this granddaughter in Pisa. The next day on his way to Pisa Augustus meets a young nobleman—who turns out to be a woman—with whom he converses and who hints at, but does not really reveal, a very mysterious story. After that Augustus witnesses how a travelling company, among others consisting of the Prince Potenziani who plays a leading role in the story of the old lady, develops into a challenge, on account of a certain tale. Augustus feels obliged to act as a second in the duel. (In the meantime he watches a puppet show.) The duel next morning is stopped by Agnese, the young girl, who goes in between, telling her part/version of the story which makes all the previous, isolated, and up till then mysteriously disconnected parts join beautifully into a whole: the young Prince Nino actually did not let down the old Prince Potenziani, he just, without knowing it, deflowered a stand-in (Agnese) for Rosina, whom he was to have raped on behalf of the impotent Potenziani, thus making it possible for him to prove consummation of his marriage. The duel is off, and Nino's life is saved. But Potenziani dies; the two young people could have had each other, but having been liberated from her secret the woman is no longer paralyzed by the rape and must now (perhaps) be won; Rosina does not die in childbirth as predicted, and everything ends up with happiness and harmony. In gratitude Augustus gets a “smelling bottle” from the old noblelady which is the counterpart to the one he already has: thus (without knowing it herself) the old noblelady is identical with his grandmother's friend fifty years earlier. Augustus, however, keeps this knowledge to himself, feeling that

… in this decision of fate, [was] something which was meant for him only.

(p. 216)

All rings are closed; the pattern filled in.


On the face of it the structure thus seems complicated, yet not incalculable. Gerard Genette's distinction between narrator and focalizer2 may be useful here: Augustus is the focalizer of the tale. The told universe is reflected through him. On both sides of this internal, personified instance of focalization (temporally acting in vision-avec) we find, however, a number of explicit instances (all working in vision-par-derrière): “under” Augustus we find the “personal” narrators, giving Augustus and each other their versions, respectively, of the pattern, which only in the end appears to the perspective of Augustus3 (the old lady, the young lady, Potenziani, Nino, etc.). “Above” Augustus we find on the other hand an “authorial” narrator telling Augustus, and being explicit among other things qua the objectifying characterization of him: his melancholy, his corpulence, etc. This instance is very close to, but must necessarily, as a principle, be separated from, the supreme implicit narrator who takes care of distribution and linking of all these instances.


The enunciated is also complicated, being formulated at a number of different levels of narration. Still the message of the stories generally seems to focus on a certain limited problem: the question about which intersubjective modes of exchange, especially concerning exercise of power and control, are possible—and desirable. You can condense a formalization of this problem by setting up an axis having as one pole a mode of exchange in which the single individual as a project thrusts his will on his surroundings, directly or indirectly, but in any case through some kind of intentionally anticipated exercise of power. Belonging to this pole we find the notion of this competent single individual as being justified in the exercise of power by this competence. This point of view has certain decisive implications: it emphasizes the fact that the regulation of being is human in all circumstances; in all cases the world, then, is recognizable as objects of value in front of a subject. Furthermore—as a consequence of the mutual clashes which these kinds of subjects will then necessarily experience—hierarchical differentiation of this field of human subjects is necessary. In the second pole of the axis we find another type of exchange which considers control to be mutual relations of obligation in which the subjects are able to change their positions in relation to each other, thus performing exactly a mutual exchange. This means that no single subject is able to act as a privileged regulator of character, direction, and content of the exercise of power; instead of this, qua the insight by the single subjects into the necessity of acting also as objects to other subjects' legal exercise of power, an alternation, regulated by the concrete interactions, between the position of being subject and the position of being object, between pride and humility, an alternation which may finally be recognized as an acceptance of some outer non-human supreme instance, an alternation of that kind takes place. God, fate, chance. Or, nontranscendentally staged pragmatically: just the acceptance of what actually happens.4

More than anything all the single stories converge in this thematic axis. According to her privileged conception of the world, Carlotta, the old lady, wants to force the young Rosina to marry against her will; Prince Potenziani sets up an intrigue (the rape) in order to make sure that the marriage will go ahead, thus getting the opportunity of “playing with” Rosina by depriving her of the possibility of a divorce on the plea of nonconsummation of the marriage. These Great Subjects both lose: Carlotta by actually recognizing the limitation of her right of the subjective exercise of power, but Potenziani without such a recognition. On the contrary he is vexed because he has not been cunning enough to set up an even better intrigue, which would have enabled him to win. Potenziani then only sees the concrete, not the fundamental limitation of projectuality. Furthermore, Potenziani finds it quite natural to take advantage of the law of mutual obligation in the case of Nino, even when the purpose is to break this law in the case of somebody else (the intrigue). On the other hand the young ones respect this mutuality: Nino does what he has been ordered to do; contrary to all reason (not just because of the odds of it, but also because he has actually kept the promise he is being accused of having broken) he enters the duel; similarly the young girl plays her part as a stand-in and for a long time remains silent in spite of her unbearable dishonour. Still she is the one who in the very end through a higher bid saves Nino's life by telling the truth; in doing so, it turns out that she is also setting herself free. This is the type of exchange which is actually the “winner” in the tale: not because it beats the intriguers within their own register by thinking out even cannier plans (the way the—very symbolically—impotent Potenziani imagines), but by accepting chance, and thus worshipping mutual obligation and with that one's own integrity more than potential outer profit.

As should be evident from the course of events and from the very mounting of this axis in the tale, a positive evaluation of the pole of mutual exchange is made at the expense of the megalomaniac individual projectuality of the other side (as is thematically reiterated almost everywhere in Dinesen). This evaluation, however, takes place in a certain narrative structure. What is decisive is that the events are removed from or “outside” the Augustus experiencing them and through whom we are experiencing them. Everything, so to speak, is happening in front of him as though in a (puppet) theatre performance, in which he himself may be playing a very modest part, but which fundamentally has nothing concrete to do with his own problems. To him (and in the perspective of the reader through his focalization) it is this very distance that makes these events turn into a chain of allegories, carrying meaning and being attractive, and whose message is also made visible precisely because of their distance, their nature of otherness. What Augustus is going through is a kind of formation process in a double-pole structure, in which he experiences, on the one hand, his own usual emptiness (and action-paralyzed melancholy) as opposed to the abundance of substance and doing, which is characteristic of the entire chain of events that he witnesses. But on the other hand he also seems to pick the attitude of the point of the sequence of events: there is a line from his initial rejection of truth as being privileged logos, over the puppet comedy's playing with the (pragmatical) truth of lies in “Revenge of Truth,” and to his final renunciation of proclaiming the coincidence of the smelling bottles. Augustus' experience of events enables him to recognize his own indolence hitherto, and his (as is said to be generally characteristic of Northern people) constitutional distance from any kind of strong outburst of feeling. He sees his own decompressed space of melancholic depressiveness being confronted with a space which is full of exchange, death, passion, risk: an authentic space. This confrontation throws his own situation in relief. And, as one might think, something similar happens to the implicit reader following this focalization. The story seems, however, to offer a solution to this also vertical north/south conflict qua Augustus' process of recognition. Concretely Augustus is assimilated by the authentic life of the south (he even has an affair with an admittedly Swedish lady). The distance, then, is broken down.

To sum up it may, however, be said that precisely qua the originally distance-making mounting of the opposition of values in construction, the text optimalizes its supreme critique of the calculating exercise of power by projectual reason—and thus, if you like, of the modernity that has this reason as its primary property. But it should also be noted that at the same time the text mounts itself as a kind of contradiction of its own message: the nicely calculated and successful staging of the impossibility of staging made by the text itself seems to imply some sort of intrinsic denial. Or, in any case a problem of revocation for the sovereign, implicit narrator.


With this reading the text is placed as more or less in accordance with itself—or at least in accordance with its own discordance. It mounts a certain axiological taxonomy in a convenient, accessible position—and it indicates an access to the ostensive and intended process of formation (through Augustus' function of focalization). Because the scenario is removed in terms of time and space, a certain distance is marked, but probably this only makes the effect of exemplary objectification, which also allegorically points back to the time of the reader, even greater. Though Dinesen's text remains absolutely different from the texts written by her modernist contemporaries it can easily be conceptualized within the same historical context, perhaps as a parallel track in the process of historical transformation: the key words here might be the critique of modernity, the individual thrown back onto itself, the problem of alienation (emphasized in Augustus' position, but also symbolically represented by the overall being verrückt of the story in space and time). Furthermore we have the rather high congruence between the text's statement and its structure of enunciation. Even according to the reading we have offered.

The question is, however, whether this reading is satisfactory and sufficient. Above all the reading seems overtly to simplify the construction of enunciation by fixing its instances, placing them in firm positions, while they are actually labile, shaking, relative. In particular this applies to the position of Augustus, the focalizer. On the one hand it is technically correct that this position works as the reader's entrance to the story, and that qua the process it is also the carrier of the perspective. On the other hand there are so many demonstrative distances inside the enunciation of the text that the competence of the focalization is seriously affected. Augustus, in other words, is unreliable or in any case not directly reliable as a narrator/focalizer. He gets his observations wrong, for instance he twice mistakes women for men (and that is one mistake too many to be coincidental in the universe of the story). His part in the tale, also from an outside point of view, is that of the observer, and his mode of existence is that of reflection, of pensiveness. On a closer look at the reflections, which he actually makes, they turn out in practice to be rather trivial, or frankly banal, in spite of their solemn character. For instance in his conversation with the young woman concerning the relationship between men and women:

“… it has happened to me many times that a lady has told me that I was making her unhappy, and that she wished that she and I were dead, at a time when I have tried hardest to make her happy. It is so many years now since Adam and Eve”—he looked across the room to a picture of them—“were first together in the garden, that it seems a great pity that we have not learned better how to please one another.”

(p. 184)

Indeed a profundity! But apart from the fact that this is the level of thinking which he stammers out, often with a lot of trouble and great solemnity, his acknowledgment of his own process is similarly miserable, apparently. In the case of the puppet comedy he manages to convince himself that if he himself has now entered a puppet comedy (i.e., the throbbing life of the south) then he wants to make sure that he does not get out of it again. But this point of view carries with it that very inside/outside dualism which the “theatrical” symbolization intended to settle with. Augustus' immovability can, however, be seen even more clearly at the end of the story itself:

Augustus took a small mirror from his pocket. Holding it in the flat of his hand, he looked thoughtfully into it.

(p. 216)

Augustus' mania of looking at himself in a mirror has already earlier in the text been explained as something which he did as a young man in order to find truth. It is decisively significant, thus, that he narcissistically regards himself in the final sequence in order to find the very truth which it has been the issue of the whole tale to show does not exist other than pragmatically, which means in concrete events, in concrete exchange. Or to put it briefly: Augustus has in fact learned nothing from what has happened.

The reason for this is primarily that he is too slow, too heavy. Actually he is an almost ridiculous figure: he is pleasant and well-intentioned, but above all he is unable to realize his own limitations. This is perceptibly confirmed by the part he plays in the last tale of the collection, “The Poet.”5

This distance from Augustus cannot however be called unambiguous (though seemingly growing, whenever realized in the first place). This distance is above all a tendency, a shake, an irony, which establishes an ambiguity in the reader's relation to the figure. This ambiguity, however, has rather extensive consequences first for the structure of enunciation of the story, and later on also for its thematic statement.

The dissociation from Augustus is, precisely, an evaluation, an attitude. As it is not caused by the explicit narrator, apparently (who hides no sympathies), it singles out the implicit narrator as its sender. This links the explicit narrator and Augustus, the focalizer, at one level, while a connection between the implicit narrator and the first-person narrators “down” in the text is similarly established behind this level. The latter who is supposed to possess more insight than the former, or at least to be closer to the level of insight of “the tale,” is, however, in its level of knowledge constitutionally handicapped by the fact that the first-person narrators and their stories are experienced by Augustus who is to some extent unreliable, or at least not specifically emphasized as a carrier of insight. Something potentially very full of insight is thus intermediated via a perspective constitutionally primitive—and which does not even know its own restrictions. The result of this is a high degree of uncertainty—which might be illustrated by an hourglass-shaped model of the topography of enunciation—both below (what is actually going on in the story) and above (what the narrator is actually trying to tell with this story).

This means above all that what seems at first glance to be an unambiguous linking of the story (and a linking of this to the story of Augustus) through the “disclosure” by the girl Agnese of the true inwardness of the case, in effect turns out to be anything but unambiguous. The messages of the single stories become ambiguous. It becomes uncertain what is actually happening: the exits (for instance for the young couple) are being covered up. But also the superior intention and meaning of the tale is now a matter of discussion, for what is the “meaning” of this lability in the narrative distribution? Why is the impotent Prince called “Potenziani”—is it just to jeer? Why is it exactly through “smelling bottles” (i.e. instruments of anaesthetics) that the supreme symbolic connection is established in Augustus' mind?

What is interesting in all these questions is not the answers there might be to them, but the fact that they can even be asked. Furthermore, at the level of the statement this entire “labilization” of the instances in the structure of enunciation has as its consequence the fact that Augustus' problem is changing. On an immediate reading the polarizations of north/south, emptiness/fullness, appearance/authenticity seem to be an absolute and an existential problem (to A., but with a general significance qua the reader's way of entrance). The dissociation of Augustus makes it appear rather as a structural problem of position, a relative problem more in the nature of a subjective projection than of an objective schism: Augustus' problem is an inherent part of his constitutional relationship to the world and thus it is bound to follow him in any circumstances whatsoever. What is at issue is otherness as an intrinsic counterpicture. Augustus is being exposed and made ridiculous as tied up to his own miserable self-projections. But a part of this stultification hits the implicit reader—because Augustus is still the entrance, and the attitude towards the competence of his perspective is uncertain. The reader is left, without appeal, to make use of a perspective which may be unfit for use because it is incompetent; above that incompetence, then, we find the implicit narrator as a possible director. Relegated to a continuous penduling between on the one hand Augustus' flat, but serious perspective and on the other hand the supreme narrator's sovereign, but immensely inaccurate, labile, and relaxedly ironical perspective, the implicit reader then is above all confronted with his own lack of competence in the tale, or rather: his lack of decidability of competence.

The tale is altogether open. Half-finished, it might be argued. This very nature of being existentially, constitutionally half-finished is precisely what Carlotta, the old lady, mentions as her experience of life after having dissociated herself from her ideology of projectuality and perfection hitherto:

“When I was a little girl,” she said, “I was told never to show a fool a thing half finished. But what else does the Lord himself do to us during all our lives?

(p. 215)

This may be the text's metacomment on itself. To believe in the apparent sovereignty of a construction is a mistake: constructions are always only half finished; they move.

And most important is precisely the moving, the lability, the very existence of this simultaneous, incommensurable and undecidable ambiguity—which is not an either/or. Our original reading is not contradicted by the next one: the structure and statements of its values, Augustus' cautious process of formation, the outside/in-fascination—all these elements still exist as features of the text, as traces of a reading which are an inescapable part of its meaning. They are just framed by the possible presence of the others, like a picture being shaken. A picture which is supposed to show the immutability of firmness. Which it still does. But it is being shaken.

The outcome is not one of mediation or denial. “The outcome” is the very moving, saturated by contrasts whose elements are located in different registers of discourse and thus unable to dissolve or to confirm each other. But for instance the problem of revocation in the text, which we pointed out in the first reading, is reversed by the frame of the subsequent reading: the problems involved in sovereignly staging a demonstration of the limitations of staging thus seem to have been staged. But not in a register in which it is possible to characterize the staging as “sovereign.” Or is it?


If “sovereignty” is the existence of a hierarchical system, within which a supreme arch-instance is able to act as a deciding resultant in a calculated system of levels of insight, then sovereignty is not the issue here. There is no such place here from which it is possible to survey the complexity of the text or to identify the position of the instances. But technically all this disorder of the enunciation is of course installed by a supreme implicit narrator. The text just does not contain any markers which make it possible to decide the plan or the direction of the construction—or rather, the text has many markers but they are pointing in different directions. It is this sort of (lack of) order which made us choose to read the text in two stages. Even though it would have been possible from the start to release all the undecidabilities in one and the same reading, this might have blurred the very special way in which complexity quite simply frames the quite simple.

To sum up: Technically the crucial reason for the complexity of the text is the lability of the authority of focalization (and with that of course to some extent the lability of the authority of the explicit, “olympic” narrator). This makes it impossible to decide what is up and down in the hierarchy of insight among the whole system of narrators in the text. If in fact the focalizer is unable to understand the first-person narrators, then their levels of fictionality change and the hierarchy of insight is altered. And it is not even a stable dilemma, but constant, virtual changes where the focalizer may at a given moment be precise and clearly recognizing, and the next helplessly misinterpreting, whether this is caused by concrete tâches aveugles or just by a common lack of acuteness.

What is decisive is of course that the implicit reader is partially pulled into this lability and into the ensuing uncertainty as to what is actually happening. This makes the reader one who both “understands” and “does not understand.” Augustus' stupid perspective becomes an imperceptible part of his insight and consequently that of the reader's: With Augustus the implicit reader is simultaneously mounted in this conveniently objectivating “outside” and embarassingly close to the centers of events, as their actual object. And consequently also both naively innocent, virginal—and accomplice of the ineluctability of the complications. Whether the “easy” mounting of the play is done deliberately or not.

The mode of function of the text is thus extremely complex. It is interesting to see how this complexity is clearly produced by the structure of the text itself. The mounting of the subject/object-relations in the various dimensions of the text has been done so as to make it impossible to fit them into one formula or just to make them correspond to each other at the same level. One will have to “content oneself” with describing their proper developments phenomenologically and the system as a whole as “complex.”6 Compared to each other the single relations may most precisely be described as out of phase. They neither confirm, contradict, nor modify each other. They simply are there at the same time, in the same text, unable to communicate and still together making out the space of the text.

This space, consequently, is very simple and surveyable—and at the same time a labyrinth with no way out. Perhaps Dinesen's tale is not at all a sidetrack in history (the way we suggested in the beginning). Perhaps it is rather a loop, necessarily outside at any time.


  1. The English edition referred to here is the Vintage Books, New York 1972; it is a photographic reprint of the 1934 original edition. The Danish text used is Gyldendals Tranebøger 1985, photographic reprint of the 1950 edition.

  2. See for instance Gerard Genette: Figures III, Paris 1972; see also the clarifying explicitations in Shlomith Rimmon-Kennan: Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London 1990, esp. pp. 71ff.

  3. —and with that, fundamentally, to the perspective of the reader.

  4. Congruent to this installation of values, the thematics of truth can also be mounted: truth as something transcendentally behind the exchanges versus truth pragmatically linked with them (in the first case the large subjects can then claim to represent truth through the projects; the other truth is not representable or monopolizable).

  5. It is of course a matter of discussion whether it is reasonable to infer from the characteristics of a person from another tale, though belonging to the same collection. In “The Poet,” however, Augustus is a character of no importance at all. And this makes the merging of names not just a coincidence (because we also have references to personal disposition, the wife's jealousy, etc.). Here we meet Augustus as considerably older. Decisive in relation to the Pisa story is the establishing of the fact that as to Augustus there have been no changes whatsoever in the nature of acquiring more insight or Gelassenheit: Augustus is still bound to his Sisyphean labour of looking for authenticity, in this case pinned down to the point that he is only able to appreciate objects which other people are envious of. In other words he is still the rather ridiculous, contemplative person whom the smelling bottles in the Pisa story do not seem to have moved anywhere. In the introductory characteristic it is said about him: “He wanted to be very happy but he had no talent for happiness.” And the slightly ironic continuation—ironic if you have the Pisa story in mind—goes: “He had suffered during his youth.”

  6. “Complex system” here understood in the meaning it is being given by modern natural sciences, see for instance Robert Rosen, “Organisms as Causal Systems Which Are Not Mechanisms: An Essay into the Nature of Complexity,” in Theoretical Biology and Complexity. Three Essays on the Natural Philosophy of Complex Systems. Ed., Rosen. Orlando: 1985. In his still unpublished Ph.D thesis, Realismens metode (Aarhus Universitet, 1991), Frits Andersen applies this concept to realist literature regarding this as “complex” above all through its double and mutually incongruent determinateness by mimesis and “mathesis,” i.e., narrative and descriptive elements of constitution.

Marianne Stecher-Hansen (essay date September 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4573

SOURCE: Stecher-Hansen, Marianne. “Both Sacred and Secretly Gay: Isak Dinesen's ‘The Blank Page’.” Pacific Coast Philology 29, no. 1 (September 1994): 3-13.

[In the following essay, Stecher-Hansen sheds light on Dinesen's feminist views through an analysis of her essay “Oration at a Bonfire” and her story “The Blank Page.”]

In her “Oration at a Bonfire” of 1953, Karen Blixen categorically proclaimed, “I am not a Feminist.”1 The speech had been delayed for fourteen years: the original invitation to speak had been issued in connection with a large international women's congress to be held in Copenhagen in the summer of 1939. In her speech Karen Blixen muses that the invitation may have been given “upon mistaken assumptions” and adds slyly that “the women may have evoked from me something of which they may make use.” It does indeed seem curious that Karen Blixen should have been asked to address an international audience of leading feminists, unless it was hoped that she would be shamed into a defense of her own untimely opinions, her anachronisms, and her artistic aestheticism so completely removed from the burning social issues of the day. For in assuming a male pseudonym—Isak Dinesen—hadn't this Danish Baroness followed the outmoded practice of a long line of women writers such as George Eliot or George Sand, whose choice of pen name was in itself an act of negation of their own femininity as well as an implied acknowledgment of male superiority? And by setting most of her tales in a romanticized past among royal and aristocratic protagonists with an openly declared sympathy for the ideals of a patriarchal, even feudal, ancien régime, hadn't she thoroughly disqualified herself from contributing anything to a debate on equality between the sexes in an egalitarian age?

Dinesen's authorship has proved to be a challenge to scholars and critics. The greatest body of scholarship rests upon the premise of the author's supposed anti-feminism. Thus, in The World of Isak Dinesen, Eric Johannesson notes that in her fiction “the relationship between man and woman is like the relationship between master and servant”;2 in ‘Isak Dinesenand Karen Blixen, Donald Hannah claims that “the writer begins where the woman ends”;3 and more recently in The Life of a Storyteller, Judith Thurman maintains that, by the time of her Bonfire Speech, Dinesen's views on feminism “had grown considerably more conservative.”4

Since the 1970s feminist critics have found in Isak Dinesen much “of which they may make use” to borrow Blixen's own words from “Oration at a Bonfire.” In later years the author's works have undergone reevaluations: in the process, this self-proclaimed non-feminist's unique contributions to twentieth-century literature are finding their way into the canon of feminist literature.5 The often different interpretations, however, suggest that Dinesen's position in this canon is not once and for all defined. The present discussion is an attempt to contribute some observations toward a definition of Dinesen's feminism. To this end, it will take a closer look at the “Oration at a Bonfire” itself as well as the short story “The Blank Page,” which was published a very few years later.6

In her 1953 speech, delivered to a Danish teachers' seminary, Dinesen urges women of her day to develop in their own way and not to imitate patterns established by men, arguing that the dissimilarity of traditional male and female roles forms a “union” of opposites: “I think that the mutual inspiration of man and woman has been the most powerful force in the history of the race.” Already in On Modern Marriage and Other Observations, originally written in 1923/24, a whole decade before the author had made her literary debut, she introduced the notion that the ideal relationship develops only where there is distance and dissimilarity between men and women.7 Here, as well as in her letters from Kenya from the 1920s we find a woman who takes a keen interest in feminist issues. We are also struck by the consistency of her views throughout her career. Her statement “I am not a feminist” in “Oration at a Bonfire” has been seen by critics as a reactionary declaration and will remain so if it is removed from its cultural and textual context. The statement should rather be read as Dinesen's commentary on the early feminist movement as represented by the Danish Feminist Society, of which her spinster aunt Bess Westenholtz was a fervent member, an association her niece viewed with disapproval. In 1926 Karen wrote to her aunt in Denmark that, despite advances in women's social rights and opportunities, the feminist movement had not reached its goal and that “women now—desire and are striving to be human beings with a direct relationship with life in the same way as men have done and do this.”8 In “Oration at a Bonfire” Dinesen comments on the early feminist movement, which “first arose one hundred years ago” and during which phase “women made their entry in disguise, in a costume which intellectually or psychologically represented a male … these just, courageous, loyal, and sly women adopted … (masculine) insignia and showed the world that they could pass an examination, defend a doctoral dissertation, and perform an operation just as well as any male candidate aspiring to a high post.” Dinesen's remarks are directed at an early “feminist” phase of the women's movement, which was tied to the nineteenth-century suffrage movement, concerned with pragmatic socio-political matters.9 She readily gives credit to the advancements gained by her foremothers:

I know in what debt I stand to the older women of the women's movement now in their graves. When I myself in my lifetime have been able to study what I wished and where I wished, when I have been able to travel around the world alone, when I have been able to put my ideas freely into print, yea, when I today can stand here at the lectern, it is because of these women and of a few people whom I honor and respect still more. I know that in order to achieve such advantages for unborn generations of women, in their lives they had to go through much and sacrifice more, that they had to endure scandal and ridicule, and that without cessation they had to struggle against prejudice and suspicion.

But these achievements were not sufficient. The early feminists, whose views were grounded in a Protestant suspicion of sexuality, had ignored that “direct relationship with life” the author had referred to in the 1926 letter to her feminist aunt. Dinesen perceived, in the words of Judith Thurman, that “the feminist movement had a long way to go before it offered her generation any real freedom … so long as chastity was the central issue in the debate, an essential element of their freedom—the erotic—was denied them.”10 In 1953 she now urges women of the post-war era to “lay down the weapons which they took up” and advises them to repossess their femininity; contemporary woman “can confidently open her visor and show the world that she is a woman and no disguised rogue” rather than conform to patriarchal values and compete with men on their terms.

In her emphasis on the importance of sexual difference and women's erotic freedom, Dinesen turns from the more obvious superficial concerns of socio-economic equality and reaches down to fundamental mythic and biological levels. In the process she reveals her true stature as a feminist advocating views well ahead of her time. Indeed, these views are strikingly corroborated by such contemporary feminist theorists as Hélène Cixous. In her influential essays “Sorties” (1975; trans. 1986) and “La Rire de la Médusa” (1975; trans. “The Laugh of the Medusa,” 1976) Cixous focuses on the ways in which the neglected, the suppressed, and the unconscious aspects of women's sexuality shape her language and writing.11 Belonging in the French post-structuralist tradition of Derrida and Lacan, Cixous urges women to liberate themselves from the discursive practices of “phallocentrism,” to sweep away its dominating syntax and grammar, and to “write through the body.” Central to Cixous' vision, for she maintains that it is impossible to “define” a “feminine practice of writing,” is the interplay between women's erotic potential (jouissance) and women's language and writing: “Women have almost everything to write about femininity: about their sexuality, that is to say about the infinite and mobile complexity of their becoming erotic.”12 With specific reference to Derrida, Cixous states that women's writing will ultimately challenge the “phallologocentric” discourse and authority and create a spontaneous connection between female sexuality and feminine writing: “Woman's body with a thousand and one fiery hearths, when—shattering censorship and yokes—she lets it articulate the proliferations of meanings that runs through it in every direction [emphasis added].”13 In contrast to phallic monosexuality, Cixous emphasizes the multiplicity of female sexuality which she describes as a creative, articulate force whose power is comparable to that of the raconteuse of A Thousand and One Nights.14 The reader is suddenly reminded of the prominence of the Scheherazade figure in Dinesen's fiction; in the light of Cixous' notion of écriture féminine, Dinesen's tales become metaphorical illustrations of the relationship between the multiplicity (“the proliferations of meanings”) of a “female” text and the jouissance (the erotic potential) of the female body.15 Nowhere is this more suggestively presented than in Dinesen's enigmatic tale “The Blank Page.”

In “The Blank Page” from Last Tales (1957) Dinesen associates femaleness with the very specialized art of story-telling; in fact, the tale seems to center on the question of women's writing and self-expression. Dinesen, who liked to refer to herself as a storyteller (fortællerske), not an author, takes up a strong defense for the “anachronistic” art of the story in Last Tales, particularly in “The Cardinal's First Story” and “The Blank Page,” in which she maintains that in the best tales a central mystery remains unsolved.16 She introduces an old female storyteller as the narrator of “The Blank Page,” a marginalized figure who “sits at the city gate,” making her living by telling stories; she employes a secret art form which has been nurtured and handed down in a matrilineal oral tradition: “It was my mother's mother, the black-eyed dancer, the often embraced, who in the end—took upon herself to teach me the art of story-telling.” The wise matriarch is depicted as a repository of specifically female wisdom which, Dinesen implies, transcends that of men. In storytelling it is necessary to be loyal to the story: “Where the storyteller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness.” And with a sly appeal to her listeners' purse the old storyteller promises to tell the story of the blank page. She does so somewhat reluctantly, “for it might well, among the uninitiated, weaken our own credit.” She has told many tales, “one more than a thousand,” in fact. In this manner Dinesen evokes the figure of Scheherazade, the princess who circumvents death at the hands of her jealous husband, Sultan Schahrijar, by telling stories throughout a thousand and one nights in the royal bedchamber, thus captivating her captor.

“The Blank Page” centers on an old convent for sisters of the Carmelite Order in Portugal. These sisters grow the finest flax and manufacture a linen so fine and flower-white that it is traditionally used for bridal sheets for the young princesses of Portugal. In accordance with “venerable custom” the sheet is publicly displayed on the morning after the wedding in order to attest to the virginity of the princess and the legitimacy of the royal heirs. The convent is privileged to receive back the central piece of the sheet which bears witness to “the honor of the royal bride.” The blood-stained piece of linen is then mounted in a heavy gilt frame on which a coroneted plate is engraved with the princess' name, and hung in a long gallery at the convent. The faded markings of the canvases invite a number of interpretations: within them “people of some imagination and sensibility may read all the signs of the zodiac.”

The convent's gallery becomes the destination for female pilgrimages, “by nature both sacred and secretly gay,” as the princesses of Portugal, “who were now queens or queen dowagers of foreign countries, Archduchesses, or Electresses,” pay a visit with their splendid retinue. Without fail, there is one canvas in the midst of the long row, that attracts more attention than all the others: the coroneted plate on the frame carries no name, and the linen within the frame “is snow-white from corner to corner, a blank page.” The story-teller points out that “the royal papa and mama who once ordered this canvas to be framed and hung up, might have left it out.”

In Dinesen's tale, the faded bloodstains on the framed bridal sheet become analogous to the ink markings on a sheet of paper, i.e. the printed page; each suggests a story: “Each separate canvas with its coroneted name-plate has a story to tell, and each has been set up in loyalty to the story.” The fact that the canvases represent women's stories, or female art, is emphasized by Dinesen's description of the queens, noble ladies, and holy sisters who stand silently contemplating the framed artifacts.

According to previous feminist readings of Dinesen's tale, the stained and unstained sheets are symbolic of female writing/art. In “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity,” Susan Gubar explores the significance of blood and bodily fluids as a medium of female self-expression: “the objects of art in ‘The Blank Page’ are quite literally made out of the bodies of the royal princesses whose internal fluids are the print and the paint.”17 The blood stains represent women's function as objects of exchange in a patriarchal society and the bloodied sheets represent virgin sacrifice, while sexual initiation and the marriage bed represent death: “this blood wedding transforms the marriage bed into a kind of coffin in which the virgin is sacrificed … (Dinesen) implies that many women in a patriarchy experience a dread of heterosexuality.” Gubar's interpretation of the blood-stained sheets reinforces a culturally-biased view of women's biological functions in a patriarchal society: “This story can be used to illustrate how woman's image of herself as text and artifact has affected her attitudes toward her physicality and how these attitudes in turn shape the metaphors through which she imagines her creativity.” Susan Gubar's analysis of “The Blank Page” is based on a particular Anglo-American theory of women's literary creativity, a theory which she and Sandra Gilbert developed in their collaborative work, The Madwoman in the Attic.18 Based primarily on nineteenth-century British women writers, their work attempts to demonstrate that women writers experience an “anxiety of authorship” causing a kind of female schizophrenia which is represented by a mad “double” or “madwoman in the attic” in nineteenth-century women's fiction. Gilbert and Gubar argue that women writers, in order to survive the debilitating imprisonment of a dominant patriarchy, simultaneously conform to and subvert patriarchal literary standards. Their insistence that the female character serve as the author's double, as an image of her own anxiety and rage, tends toward the reductionist point of view which is evident in Gubar's assertion that “The blood sacrifice of the royal princesses in Dinesen's story represents the sacrifice of virginity not through martyrdom but through marriage.” Assuming that a “feminist rage” directed at patriarchal repression motivates Dinesen's writing, Gubar attempts to read the author into the tale—to decipher the “true” meaning of the text—by proposing that “Dinesen may have considered her own marriage deathly because she believed her many illnesses in later life were related to the syphilis she unwittingly contracted from her husband.” Such a critical approach to “The Blank Page” rests on the traditional view of the relationship between author and text as one which is hierarchical and authoritarian and leads to a simplified reading of Dinesen's text, a reading which overlooks that it is open to multiple interpretations. Gubar's thesis, the image of penetration as a “painful wounding,” rests on a Victorian conception of the female body and female sexuality which seems incompatible with Dinesen's depiction of women. Notably absent in her tale is the view, much cherished by Gubar's brand of feminist criticism, of woman as victim. Rather, there is in Dinesen's tales an implied sense of feminine superiority, that is indeed “both sacred and secretly gay,” in its possession of both ancient wisdom and wicked frivolity. Given Dinesen's cosmopolitan twentieth-century views about sexual morality and eroticism, the interpretation of women's sexual initiation as death, as woman “killed into art” and “bleeding into print” seems improbable.

As already mentioned, Dinesen's tales lend themselves more readily to interpretations along the lines of French feminist theory. Hélène Cixous' suggestion that women “write the body” and develop a kind of biological female aesthetic captures Dinesen's playful approach to eroticism and writing. The blood-stained sheets in Dinesen's “The Blank Page” may be regarded as female writing which signifies women's most liberating erotic, empowering and joyous life experiences; the blood represents not only the blood of sexual initiation, but also menstrual blood and the blood of child-birth. A passage from Dinesen's “Tales of Two Old Gentlemen” from the same section of Last Tales as “The Blank Page” stresses the significance of female blood as a central metaphor and lends substance to Cixous' insights. According to Dinesen, the shedding of blood

is a high privilege and is inseparably united with the sublimest moments of existence, with promotion and beatification. What little girl will not joyously shed her blood in order to become a virgin, what bride not hers in order to become a wife, what young wife not hers to become a mother?19

Opposed to Gubar's interpretation that the blood stains in “The Blank Page” are concrete signs of women's sacrifice and martyrdom, is Dinesen's own assertion in the above quote with the suggestion that female blood functions as a metaphor for the joyous, erotic art, the jouissance, of feminine writing.

What, then, are we to make of the most suggestive metaphor in Dinesen's tale, the metaphor that figures in the title itself, the blank page? As readers we join the female pilgrims in the story: “It is in front of this piece of pure white linen that the old princesses of Portugal—worldly wise, dutiful, long-suffering queens, wives and mothers—their noble old playmates, bridesmaids and maids-of-honor, have most often stood still.” And Dinesen, with a mocking smile, is very careful not to betray the story by breaking the silence, while a number of suggestive possibilities present themselves: does the blank page suggest that the princess circumvented sexual initiation by telling tales in the manner Scheherazade stayed her own death? Or does the virginal white of the linen suggest that the princess was not a virgin at the time of consummation, or does it symbolize the mystery of the Immaculate Conception? Is the picture an ironic comment on male impotence, a temporary embarrassment or the initiation of a marriage blanc? No wonder that “It is in front of the blank page that old and young nuns, with the Mother Abbess herself, sink into deepest thought.”

Literary critics are not content to remain in contemplative silence before the blank page. Whereas the faded bloodstains as “printed pages” suggest a form of female discourse, the blank page (Danish, “Det ubeskrevne Blad,” literally the un-written page) calls to mind Cixous' comment about women writing with mother's milk or “white ink.”20 To Susan Gubar, on the other hand, the art of storytelling is a form of “female resistance”:

Dinesen's blank page becomes radically subversive, the result of one woman's defiance which must have cost either her life or her honor. Not a sign of innocence or purity or passivity, this blank page is a mysterious but potent act of resistance.

Gubar suggests that the bride has escaped the marriage bed in order to retain her virginity; the blank page expresses Dinesen's rejection of the patriarchal order which seeks “to appropriate women's bodies as objects of exchange.” The story, according to Gubar, depicts a dread of heterosexuality and an act of female resistance. This interpretation finds little support in the story itself with its unspoken suggestion that the unstained white of the bridal sheet may be a sign that the princess was not a virgin. At the very beginning of “The Blank Page” the old storyteller strikes a note which, far from suggesting sexual initiation as death and martyrdom, refers to it in terms of sensuous lyricism: “Indeed I have told many tales … since that time when I first let young men tell me, myself, tales of a red rose, two smooth lily buds, and four silky, supple, deadly entwining snakes.”21 And alluding to the powerful matriarchy of storytellers, she singles out “my mother's mother, the black-eyed dancer, the often-embraced.”

But if the white canvas suggests the gay unchastity of “the often-embraced,” it evokes with equal persuasion the sacred mystery of the Immaculate Conception. The Carmelite order is a propagator of the cult of the Virgin Mary, and the story contains many references to this cult. The very linseed behind the exquisite linen fabric produced in the convent was originally brought from the Holy Land by a crusader. The field of flax flowers is compared to “the very color of the apron which the blessed virgin put on to go out and collect eggs within St. Anne's poultry yard, the moment before the Archangel Gabriel in mighty wing-strokes lowered himself.”22

Dinesen's tale, like the pilgrimages to the convent it describes, is indeed “both sacred and secretly gay.” The stories of the worldly storytellers by the city gate and of the pious Carmelites “high up on the blue mountains of Portugal” are all inscribed on the white canvas. Does the storyteller's comment that her mother's mother in her old age, “wrinkled like a winter apple and crouching beneath the mercy of the veil,” suggest that the often-embraced had become a nun? The blank page invites the viewer to inscribe her own story as well. At the same time it contains a warning, perhaps not least directed at literary critics, too ready to impose their own restrictive interpretations on the tale. If there is one lesson to be learned from “The Blank Page,” it is precisely to accept existence in all its multiplicity, to realize that God and the Devil are one (as Dinesen proposes in Out of Africa), to reject the binary oppositions of Western patriarchal culture according to which erotic jouissance and virginal chastity are in deadly opposition. As opposed to various doctrinaire approaches, Dinesen's “feminism” is a holistic vision that embraces all aspects of female experience.


  1. Isak Dinesen, “Oration at a Bonfire, Fourteen Years Late,” Daguerreotypes and Other Essays, trans. P. M. Mitchell and W. D. Paden (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 64-87. The essay was originally published in Danish: Karen Blixen, “En Baaltale med 14 Aars Forsinkelse,” Det danske Magasin 1 (1953): 64-82.

  2. Eric O. Johannesson, The World of Isak Dinesen (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961), 109.

  3. Donald Hannah, ‘Isak Dinesenand Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality (London: Putnam, 1971), 59.

  4. Judith Thurman, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982), 348.

  5. For examples of feminist criticism on Dinesen, see: Susan Hardy Aiken, Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative: Women in Culture and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) and “The Uses of Duplicity: Isak Dinesen and Questions of Feminist Criticism,” Scandinavian Studies 57.4 (1985), 400-411; Marianne Juhl and Bo Hakon Jorgensen, Diana's Revenge: Two Lines in Isak Dinesen's Authorship (Odense: Odense University Press, 1985); Florence C. Lewis, “Isak Dinesen and Feminist Criticism,” North American Review 264 (Spring 1979), 62-72; Sara Stambaugh, The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen: A Feminist Reading (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988).

  6. Isak Dinesen, “The Blank Page,” Last Tales (1957; rpt. New York: Random House, 1975), 99-105. In Danish: Karen Blixen, “Det ubeskrevne Blad,” Sidste Fortællinger (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1957), 90-4.

  7. Isak Dinesen, On Modern Marriage and Other Observations, trans. Anne Born (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986). Om Moderne Ægteskab og Andre Betragtninger was first published posthumously in Blixeniana, 1977.

  8. Isak Dinesen, Letters from Africa 1914-1931, trans. Anne Born and ed. Frans Lasson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 259.

  9. In the context of Dinesen's “Bonfire Oration”, it is useful to remember Elaine Showalter's delination of three distinct phases in women's literature: the “feminine” phase from 1840-80, during which women attempted “to equal the intellectual achievements of the male culture”; the “feminist” phase from 1880-1920, or the suffrage movement, during which “women are historically enabled to reject the accommodating postures of femininity”; and the “female” phase since 1920, during which “women reject both imitation and protest—and turn instead to female experience as the source of an autonomous art.” Elaine Showalter, “Toward a Feminist Poetics,” The New Feminist Criticism, ed. Elaine Showalter (London: Virago Press, 1986), 137-139.

  10. Thurman, Life of a Storyteller, 63.

  11. Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, “Sorties,” The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing and intro. Sandra Gilbert (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 63-132, and Hélène. Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Signs 1 (1976), rpt. in Critical Theory since 1965, ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1986) 309-20.

  12. Cixous, “Sorties,” 94.

  13. Cixous, “Sorties,” 94.

  14. It is important to note that Cixous does not see writing as either exclusively “masculine” or “feminine,” but maintains that aspects of both genders are evident—“variously manifest and insistent according to each person, male or female”—in writing by men and women; a concept which she refers to as “the other bisexuality” (“The Laugh of the Medusa,” 314).

  15. For example, in the very conclusion to “The Deluge at Norderney” the female protagonist, Miss Malin, compares her own storytelling art to that of Scheherazade. Isak Dinesen, Seven Gothic Tales, (1934; rpt. New York: Random House 1972), 79.

  16. Like each of Dinesen's tales, “The Blank Page” fits thematically and structurally into a larger collection of tales, namely Last Tales. It is the capstone tale in the first section of the collection, consisting of seven tales, which Dinesen entitled “Tales from Albondocani,” originally intending Albondocani as a large novel with many short chapters; each chapter was to be a complete story in itself and also function as part of a longer connected story.

  17. Susan Gubar, “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity,” Critical Inquiry, 8, (1981): 243-263.

  18. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

  19. Isak Dinesen, “Tales of Two Old Gentlemen,” Last Tales, 65.

  20. Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” 312.

  21. Christine Froula, whose work is grounded in Anglo-American feminist theory, echoes the views of Susan Gubar by suggesting that, “The young men's tales allegorize a metaphorical death of woman in patriarchal culture, a ‘deadly’ break between the female body and a speaking subject who disappears into silence upon reaching sexual maturity,” Christine Froula, “When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy,” Critical Inquiry, 10, (1983): 340.

  22. Elsewhere in her fiction Dinesen deals with the Holy Ghost with playful disrespect. In “The Deluge at Norderney,” for example, Miss Malin tells an irreverent tale: “in Egypt, in the great triangular shadow of the great pyramid, while the ass was grazing, St. Joseph said to the Virgin: ‘Oh, my sweet young dear, could you not just for a moment shut your eyes and make believe that I am the Holy Ghost?’” Isak Dinesen, Seven Gothic Tales. (1934; rpt. New York: Random House, 1972), 73.

Lynn R. Wilkinson (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8749

SOURCE: Wilkinson, Lynn R. “Isak Dinesen's ‘Sorrow-Acre’ and the Ethics of Storytelling.” Edda 1 (1996): 33-44.

[In the following essay, Wilkinson views “Sorrow-Acre” as a rewriting of Paul la Cour's “Sorg-Agre” and elucidates Dinesen's authorial intent with the story.]

Isak Dinesen's remarks to Robert Langbaum have served as a touchstone for almost all later interpretations of “Sorrow-Acre” or “Sorg-Agre”. Langbaum, who notes that his conversations with the Danish writer and storyteller took place in 1959 and 1961, reports:

Isak Dinesen told me that she read while in Africa a modern rendition of this tale by the Danish writer, Paul la Cour. She felt la Cour had made a mistake in establishing the boy's innocence, that the point ought to have remained ambiguous. The occasion for attempting her own version occurred many years later, after she had returned to Denmark. In the course of arguing with a socialist friend, she asked him whether there really was such a thing as an arbejderkultur, a proletarian culture distinct from the middle-class culture that seemed to give the workers all their values. He asked her in return whether there was such a thing as an herregaardskultur, a distinctively manorial culture. She wrote “Sorrow-Acre” to show what such a manorial culture was like and how different its values were from ours—to suggest, one gathers from the story—, that you cannot speak of the past as evil since our ideas of good and evil have changed.


Unquestioned in most discussions of “Sorrow-Acre,” from Langbaum to Donald Hannah and the recent feminist analyses of Judith Thurman and Susan Hardy Aiken, is the assumption that the tale is a nostalgic evocation of an aristocratic culture whose cruelty, grandeur, and beauty serve to point up the pallid uniformity and dullness of twentieth-century mass culture. In this view, “Sorrow-Acre” is an integral part of the more or less unchanging oeuvre of the writer Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen, whose works are a late expression of an elitist European modernism anxious to distinguish itself from all forms of non-elite culture.1

Yet the circumstances of the story's composition and publication are very probably more important than Dinesen was willing to let on. Langbaum reports that she told him she read la Cour's story, first published in 1931, while she was in Africa, and only wrote hers “many years later, after she had returned to Denmark.” Although Thurman notes that Dinesen had begun work on Winter's Tales “almost as soon as Out of Africa was finished” (293), she situates the remark about the differences between working-class and manorial cultures in the context of a conversation between the writer and a classical scholar and socialist, Hartvig Frisch, that took place in 1941 (299). But even if the exact dates of the tale's composition are unknown, the remarks quoted by Langbaum, as well as the findings of Thurman, suggest that she did not complete it until after the beginning of the German occupation of Denmark in 1940. What we do know is that English and Danish versions of “Sorrow-Acre” were published in the collections Winter's Tales and Vinter Eventyr in 1942. Surely a curious time to publish a story glorifying the cruelty of the Danish manorial system—if, indeed, that is what the tale is about. Curious, as well, the silence of most critics on the subject.2

What to make of the remarks quoted by Langbaum? Did Dinesen misunderstand or consciously misrepresent her own work? Or is “Sorrow-Acre” really only about a time and a context far removed from the date of its publication? None of Dinesen's critics base their interpretations on her expression of authorial intent alone, yet most overlook the many elements in this tale that undermine her later representation of the tale. Ranging from such apparently superficial details as scattered references to the foreignness of the cruelest character of the tale to thematic parallels to other works produced in the early 1940s to the tension between Dinesen's tale and its oral and textual sources, these elements suggest a very different reading of “Sorrow-Acre,” one that brings into focus its relation to the historical context of its publication.


No work by Dinesen is more clearly or complexly related to oral tradition than “Sorrow-Acre.” It is true, as Langbaum reports her saying, that Dinesen's version draws on la Cour's published versions of both the transcribed folktale and his own reworking of it. But it also responds to that same author's comments on the nature of the oral tale and what it can do. Dinesen's “Sorrow-Acre” represents a criticism of la Cour's work and an attempt to go him one better, to reproduce within an impersonal style worthy of the most self-conscious of modernist writers to a far greater extent than her predecessor not only the heroic perspective associated with the greatest of the Icelandic sagas but also their laconic style, which demands that the reader fill in for him- or herself crucial aspects of the narrative which are either omitted or only intimated.

Paul la Cour's “Sorg-Agre” was published at the end of an article that also includes a discussion of the relationship of the Danish folktale to the Icelandic sagas and a reprint of a tale, also called “Sorg-Agre,” as it had been transcribed and reprinted by Danish folklorists. According to la Cour, Danish folktales from part of a common Nordic narrative heritage. In Iceland, the traditions of oral narrative developed into the grand narrative forms of the Icelandic saga; under different circumstances, the same might have happened in Denmark. Instead, what is left of the rich tradition of medieval oral narrative in Denmark are compilations, “vanskelige at orientere sig i, fordi det digterisk værdifulde har været trykket af et altfor stort Stof, som ganske savnede denne Egenskab” (231) [“difficult to orient oneself in, because aesthetically worthwhile material is obscured by the overabundance of material of little aesthetic value”]. The Danish tales, as well, are characterized by a terseness that makes it difficult for a modern reader to appreciate them. They call for a reworking on the part of modern writers, la Cour argues: “Nu er de som nævnt saa skematiske og fortættede, at der maa pustes Luft i dem for at gøre dem til selvstændige Kunstværker, der, selv isolerede, uden Vanskelighed aabner sig for den moderne Læser” (232) [“They are, as we have said, so schematic and terse, that one must inflate them in order to make them into independent works of art, each on its own capable of reaching a modern reader without difficulty”].

La Cour's comments draw heavily on the pioneering work on oral narrative of Axel Olrik, who considered the Icelandic sagas as a principally oral form, a point of view that is by no means uncontroversial in saga scholarship. But la Cour is less interested in the principles of saga composition than in the ethos they convey. Following Olrik, he argues that the sagas—and also the best of the Danish folktales—represent a narrative form that combines a “voldsom digterisk Økonomi, en streng Skematisering, en ubønhørlig Logik, der finder sit Maal i det mægtige, plastiske Billede, som er Sagnets Hjerte og egentlige Mening” (232) [“a powerful poetic economy, a strict schematization, a merciless logic, whose goal is the powerful plastic image that is the heart and real meaning of the saga”]. That powerful plasticity, in turn, is subordinated to a focus on action: “De plastiske Optrin er Sagnets Midtpunkter, fordi Sagnets Indhold ligger i dets Handling, i den kommer baade Person, Karakter og Livsbetragtning til Udfoldelse” (233) [“The plastic depiction is the central point of the saga, because the content of the saga is its action, through which persons, characters, and worldviews are set forth”]. The most difficult task for the writer who wants to adapt and rework the terse material of the Danish folktale is to maintain the focus on action. La Cour writes that he is working on such a collection and that “det er ikke Hensigten at Skabe Novelledigtning over Sagn, men at lade Sagnene selv udfolde sig gennem et moderne Sind” (233) [“it is not his intention to make novellas out of folktales, but rather to let the folktales themselves appear through a modern temperament”].

What la Cour means by “Novelledigtning” is unclear. The tradition of the novella stands in a complicated relationship to oral narrative, for novellas often contain narrative frames that emphasize the role of the storyteller as he or she performs a story for an audience that is often also depicted. Perhaps he sees the self-conscious aspect of this narrative-within-a-narrative as a device that detracts from what he and Olrik saw as the emphasis on action characteristic of oral narrative. Perhaps the novella, especially as it developed in Germany, represents a focus on problems of perception and psychology that set it irrevocably apart from epic narratives.3

La Cour's distinction seems even less clear when one considers his adaptation of the original transcription of the folktale. This transcription concerns a series of events believed to have taken place near Ballum:

Under en Stormflod drev en Del Gods i Land ved Ballum. En ung Mand fra Byen kendte nogle af sin Families Ejendele derimellem og gav sig til at bjærge dem. Som han stod dær, kom een af Strandrøverne fra Skærbæk til og vilde tage Godset. Det blev til Slagsmaal mellem dem, og den unge Karl havde det Uheld at dræbe Voldsmanden. Nu var disse Strandrøvere dengang mægtige Folk, og paa Tingshuset fik de ham dømt til Døden. Det blev hans Moder grov sølle over. Hun gik til Greven paa Skakkenborg og klagede sin nød og bad ham saa mindelig om, at hendes Søn maatte faa Naade. Det lovede Greven hende da ogsaa, paa det Vilkaar, at hun skulde slaa en Fenne Byg fra Sol stod up til Sol gik ned. Den var saa stor, at fire Mænd kunde have Arbejde nok med den en hel Dag. Om hun kunde gøre det, skulde hendes Søn blive fri. Moderen gav sig i Lav dermed, og hun blev ogsaa færdig. Da hun havde skaaret den sidste Handfuld af med Seglen, saa sagde hun:

Nu vil Solen under gaa,

Nu vil jeg Guds Naade faa.

Men i det samme hun rettede sig op fra sin bøjede Stilling, brækkede hendes Ryg, og hun faldt død om. Moderen fik sin Grav paa Ballum Kirkegaard. Ovenpaa Graven ligger en Ligsten, hvor hun er aftegnet med et Neg og en Segl i Armen. Fennen, hvor hun skar Kornet, viser man endnu. Den kaldes den Dag i Dag Sorg-Agre.


During a flood with high tidal waves, a good deal of flotsam drifted ashore near Ballum. Amongst it, a young man from the town recognised some pieces belonging to his family, and started salvaging them. Whilst he was doing this, one of the robbers from Skærbæk came and wanted some of it. They started fighting, and the young lad unfortunately killed his opponent. At that time, however, these beach-robbers were so powerful that they had him condemned to death at the courthouse. His mother, deeply distressed by this, went to the Count at his castle of Skakkenborg, told him of her grief, and implored him to show mercy towards her son. The Count promised to do so on the condition that she must mow a field of barley between sunrise and sunset. This field was so large that four men would have much labour to cut it in one day. If she could do it, her son would be set free. The mother accepted the task, and did finish it. When she had cut the last handful with her sickle, she said,

Now the sun will set

Now God's mercy I will get.

But at the very moment when she raised herself from her bent position, her back broke and she fell dead. The mother was buried in the churchyard at Ballum. On her grave, a stone has been laid, on which she is drawn with a sheaf and sickle in her arm. The field where she cut the corn is still sown. To this day it is known as Sorrow-Acre.

(Hannah 81-82)

True enough, the original folktale supports la Cour's argument concerning the oral style of these narratives, especially their terseness and focus on action. Despite its brevity, however, this tale brings together at least two disparate themes, possibly originating in quite different events or stories. One concerns the double catastrophe of a flood and man's injustice to man: the pirates who, after a natural disaster, take away the only things an old woman and her son have left. The other has to do with the injustice inherent in the absolute power of a feudal overlord, who, for reasons left entirely unstated here, chooses to inflict a fatal task on an old woman.

La Cour's reworking of the tale gives it a unified focus: the love of a mother that leads her to sacrifice everything for her only son. Paradoxically, however, his version contradicts nearly everything he had said in his introduction concerning oral style. Where the original is “hermetically terse,” asking readers or listeners to fill in the gaps and judge the action for themselves, la Cour's version offers a plethora of detail, giving the woman a name, Kristin, a past, and even a point of view. The second paragraph of his tale, which explains how the woman had become a widow and describes her circumstances, is a good example of his approach:

Hun boede i Ballum By paa et lille Sted. To Køer paa Stald havde hun men ingen Mand i Stuen. Ham havde Havet taget for Øjnene af hende, hun havde set sig blive Enke og var gaaet taareløs hjem til Sønnen Jakob. Fra han var ganske lille tog han fat sammen med hende, gik med Løben og saaede og høstede de smalle Markstrimler med Segl i Haand, naar Solen havde hvidnet Kornet. Han gik ogsaa paa Havet og tog Fisk, satte Ruser eller medede. I hans Tid fik de et Baadskur, han tømrede sammen. Der slæbte han Prammen ind og havde sine Nøster og Grejer staaende. Sa langt man kendte op ad Stranden fandtes der ikke bedre Baadskur.


She lived on a little place at Ballum. She had two cows in her stall, but no man in the house. The sea had taken him before her very eyes, she had seen herself become a widow and had gone tearless home to her son Jacob. From the time he was quite small he set to work with her, ran along and sowed and harvested the small strips of land with sickle in hand, when the sun had turned the grain white. He also went to sea and caught fish, set traps or dropped a line. In his time they also had a boatshed that he built. There he sheltered his boat and kept his nets and things ready. As far as one knew up and down the coast there was no better boatshed.

By focusing on the smallness of their world and its trivial details, the passage also diminishes the characters and their actions. Where the folktale focuses on the appearance of events, their “plasticity,” la Cour gives us an extended interior monologue on the part of the mother, thereby sentimentalizing her plight. And where the actions of the anonymous woman and her son in the folktale have an enigmatic grandeur, in la Cour's version they are rendered as specific and pitiful. But above all, his emphasis on psychology shifts focus away from the actions of his characters.

Dinesen's “Sorrow-Acre” rises to the challenge posed by la Cour's discussion of oral narrative, but takes issue with his own rendition in nearly every way. Her portrayal of the mother, whom she renames Anne-Marie, could not be more concrete. We see this character exclusively from the outside, burnished by the sun, to the extent that she seems more like a work of art, a statue, than a living human being. Her situation is again rendered ambiguous. Has she been married? Did she have an illegitimate child whom she murdered? Whose son is Goske Piil? And certainly the old lord who condemns her to her ordeal represents the woman's actions as both important and heroic.

But Dinesen also introduces some significant changes. Instead of what Langbaum characterizes as “the vaguely medieval setting” (32) of the original folktale, she sets her version on a Danish estate at the end of the eighteenth century. And as Donald Hannah notes, she introduces the character of Adam. (83) But if, like la Cour's, her version also names the woman who undertakes the ordeal, it makes her silent. The verse spoken at the moment of death both in the folktale and in la Cour's version is absent here. Anne-Marie's dialogue with the old lord is presented only through the words of the old lord himself. And, perhaps more significantly, her tale represents a mixture of styles that la Cour would have found unacceptable. The actions of the peasant woman are represented with a terseness, plasticity, and emphasis on action worthy of an oral narrative, but they are also embedded in a frame narrative reminiscent of the structures of the writerly European novella tradition, in which the convention of enclosing one narrative within another, of framing it once or more, can become the occasion for questioning the reality, or pointing to the fictionality, of an event. For it is the old lord who first points her out to his nephew and tells her story. And both men ask repeatedly what it is that we should see in the death task of the old woman.

Dinesen's “Sorrow-Acre” clearly represents a violation of what Olrik and la Cour had presented as the principles of saga narrative in several respects. Her descriptions, especially the opening description of the setting of the manor house and estate are linked only in a very general sense to the action of the main characters, and are far more ornate than those of any saga or folktale: the emphasis on the sheer aesthetic appeal of the manor house and its surroundings is utterly foreign to the older narratives. But the pointed contrast between the representation of the actions of the old peasant woman and previous renditions of it, on the one hand, and the elaborate framing devices and aesthetic emphasis of the rest of Dinesen's narrative, on the other, suggest that she may have been striving for an effect parallel rather than identical to that of her oral models.

One of the fundamental principles of saga style is its allusiveness. La Cour referred to this as its “almost hermetic terseness”; recent critics often refer to the “gaps” in saga narratives which readers—or listeners—are required to fill in in order to understand the work as a whole.4 Sagas, in other words, require their audiences to see, to comprehend, and often to judge what is not explicitly stated. This, I believe, is exactly what Dinesen's “Sorrow-Acre,” with its many reversals of its oral and aesthetic models and its juxtaposition of an action modeled on an oral source and a series of epistemological and aesthetic frames, asks its audiences to do.


In Isak Dinesen's version of “Sorrow-Acre,” the first reference to the peasant woman who sacrifices her life for that of her son does not occur until over a third of the way through the narrative. Instead, the tale opens with a leisurely description of a Danish manorial estate at dawn as seen through the eyes of a young man, Adam, who has recently returned from an extended stay abroad, where he has imbibed democratic political ideals. He encounters his uncle, whose recent marriage to a very young woman may produce a son that will displace Adam as heir to the estate. Not until considerable time has elapsed does the young man notice that his uncle is watching something in the distance. The object of Adam's uncle's attention turns out to be the peasant Anne-Marie, whose story the old lord proceeds to tell. Eventually the pair move toward the field she is reaping, and we see her from a closer perspective, but still through the eyes of the two observers in the tale. In Dinesen's version, the past and present actions of Anne-Marie are mediated through a series of frames associated with the words and visual perspectives of the two men who regard and discuss her. It is, moreover, only one of two plots associated with the desires and beliefs of the two men whose conversation occurs as if in the foreground of the tale, itself also enclosed, “framed,” by evocations of the Danish landscape as undulating, timeless, and only slightly marked by the transient presence of human beings.

The series of frames in Dinesen's “Sorrow-Acre” has much in common with the novella tradition against which la Cour implicitly defined his own activity in “Danske Sagaer.” Her tale is, if anything, more complex than many novellas, which simply enclose a recounted action, a hitherto unrelated occurrence, to paraphrase Goethe's famous definition, in an account that represents the circumstances of the storyteller and his or her audience. For Dinesen's narrator does not simply introduce a storyteller, but first evokes the landscape and then the storyteller's curious and appalled audience, before presenting the old lord, who not only tells the old peasant woman's story but then also shows her to the audience-within-the-tale and, in so doing, also to the audience outside the tale, its readers. What is left of Anne-Marie's story, as it is mediated through the intricate structure of Dinesen's tale? Unlike la Cour's version, Dinesen's gives us no direct insight into the thoughts and emotions of the suffering woman, but it presents her presence and her activity as a kind of perceptual problem in a manner that is essentially foreign to saga narrative.

The action in her “Sorrow-Acre” takes place on three planes, as if in a painting. In the foreground throughout most of the narrative, Adam and his uncle argue about the guilt of Goske Piil and the ordeal the old lord has imposed on his mother: if she can reap a particular field in its entirety between sunup and sundown, he will release her son, whom he has condemned, although there is no evidence of guilt. In the distance, barely visible at first, is the peasant woman herself, engaged in a task that will prove fatal. And finally, in the shade of the manor house itself, invisible from the standpoint of the old lord, the young wife considers her reflection in a mirror and later performs a duet with Adam himself. The end of the tale suggests resolutions to all of these scenes: Anne-Marie finishes reaping the field and dies at the moment the sun goes down; Adam resolves to stay on the estate, instead of emigrating to America, as he had originally planned; and it is strongly suggested that he will be the father of a child that will bear the old lord's name.

Although there are three plot lines, the tale has two settings, evoked in terms of light and shadow that suggest both difference and complementarity; the outdoor scene, in which Anne-Marie reaps, while uncle and nephew watch and discuss her, is described as flooded by sunlight; the passages that have to do with the young wife, Sophie Magdalena, and Adam are all set in the shadows. Dinesen's finely crafted chiaroscuro effect poses an interpretative problem similar to that of a painting in which a significant detail is hidden either in a shadowy area or a proliferation of apparently superfluous detail. What is it one has difficulty seeing here, a difficulty which the tale may also be attempting to bring into focus?

The question comes to the fore early in the tale. Adam, who has just encountered his uncle at daybreak, notices that the old lord's attention lies elsewhere:

“I have listened to you,” said Adam, “with great interest. But while we have talked you yourself have seemed to me preoccupied; your eyes have rested on the field outside the garden, as if something of great moment, a matter of life and death, was going on there.”


What is going on in the distant field, of course, is the ordeal of the peasant woman, who never has the chance to tell her own story, but instead becomes the occasion for a long conversation between the two men. Beginning with the old lord's account of the barn burning and his decision to allow the old woman to sacrifice her life for that of her son, their exchange soon turns to more abstract issues. How—in what context—should one view the situation? Adam at first sees the plight of the old woman from the perspective of the Enlightenment: the old lord's actions are an affront to reason and the rights of man. But Adam's position is undermined from the start. A volume by the late-eighteenth-century Danish poet, Ewald, under his arm, he is forced to admit that there are other, less clear-cut, factors governing his actions: his longing for home, to begin with, and later his desire for the young wife of his uncle. The old lord, on the other hand, deploys a veritable arsenal of arguments to defend his position, evoking cultural models from the gods of the Greeks and Norsemen, some of whom had to be cruel because they were omnipotent, to a position close to Nietzsche and fin-de-siècle aestheticism. It is the old lord himself and his word, the uncle tells Adam, who has just asked him to release Anne-Marie from her task, that give meaning to the peasant woman's actions:

Yes, my nephew, it is possible, did I grant you your prayer and pronounce such an amnesty, that I should find it void against her faithfulness, and that we would still see her at her work, unable to give it up, as a shuttle in the rye field, until she had it all mowed. But she would then be a shocking, a horrible sight, a figure of unseemly fun, like a small planet running wild in the sky, when the law of gravitation had been done away with.


And yet, despite or perhaps because of the old lord's words, some readers or listeners may well imagine Anne-Marie's plight in just these terms, a possibility encouraged by the uncle's repeated suggestions that what Adam, they, or anyone else sees in the distant field is just a matter of perspective. One can even choose, he asserts, between tragedy and comedy: the first represents the point of view of the powerless, the second that of the gods and a ruling class that views itself in god-like terms.

Despite the proliferation of perspectives, however, the two men are unable to bring Anne-Marie into focus as a human being or hear her speak. Even when they approach the field, they see her in insect-like terms: “Like an insect that bustles along in the high grass, or like a small vessel in a heavy sea, she butted her way on, her quiet face once more bent upon her task.” (57) Even her death at the end of the tale is evoked in non-human terms: “Then, softly, lingeringly, like a sheaf of corn that falls to the ground, she sank forward onto the boy's shoulder, and he closed his arms around her.” (69)

By this time, Adam has withdrawn from the scene to the interior of the manor house, where he accompanies his uncle's wife in a duet that includes the significant lyrics: “Mourir pour ce qu'on aime, c'est un trop doux effort.” (63) His departure is preceded and made possible by a perception that explains away the situation in the field and allows him to substitute one woman for another:

He saw the ways of life, he thought, as a twined and tangled design, complicated and mazy; it was not given him or any mortal to command or control it. Life and death, happiness and woe, the past and the present, were interlaced within the pattern. Yet to the initiated it might be read as easily as our ciphers—which to the savage must seem confused and incomprehensible—will be read by the schoolboy. And out of the contrasting elements concord rose. All that lived must suffer; the old man, whom he had judged hardly, had suffered, as he had watched his son die, and had dreaded the obliteration of his being. He himself would come to know ache, tears and remorse, and, even through these, the fullness of life. So might now, to the woman in the rye field, her ordeal be a triumphant procession. For to die for the one you loved was an effort too sweet for words.


What Adam thus brings into focus is a distant, faded, and evocative pattern; what he turns away from is the plight of a solitary individual sacrificed to the whim of a tyrant, the irreversible linear movements she traces on the field that is to become her place of death. Adam's aesthetic and aestheticizing vision—he sees the situation in terms of sweetness and harmony—allows him to overlook the ethical dilemma presented by the plight of a woman who never quite comes into focus in this tale. He could have intervened. He could have left for America. Instead, by the time he leaves the scene of the ordeal, Adam has resolved to remain on the estate as the illegitimate father of a son who will carry on the family name of the tyrant.

The conversation between the two men thus inscribes a third plot, in which Adam is seduced by the old lord, as well as his young bride. This seduction may well figure, as if in a mise-en-abysme, the potential effect of this intricate tale on the reader. It is all too easy to be taken in by the dazzling array of arguments the old lord deploys and thus to accept unquestioningly Adam's decision to remain and collaborate in the old lord's plans.

This is certainly the perspective of Langbaum and other critics who focus on the relationship of Dinesen's work to the aesthetic traditions of elite European culture. Only recently have feminist critics begun to question the ethical nature of the choices made in her version of the tale, but their perspective tends to be equally ahistorical. One major interpretation of “Sorrow-Acre,” Susan Hardy Aiken's “Tracing the Woman's Line,” raises the ethical questions surrounding Anne-Marie's ordeal by focusing on the old lord as the representative of patriarchal power. Aiken's emphasis lies with Sophie Magdalena, whose sexuality and desires will undermine from within the power of the old lord and his belief in his good name. Her interpretation draws on recent feminist theories of female identity, such as those of Nancy Chodorow or Dorothy Dinnerstein, who suggest that women have a greater sense of identification and solidarity with other human beings, especially other women, because, unlike men, they are not forced to define themselves against their mothers in early childhood. The theory brings into focus the significance of the scene in which Sophie Magdalena contemplates her body in the mirror and thinks above all of two things: the naked bodies of peasant women she had seen bathing in the river the day before; and her sense that “Someone ought to have been with her who was not.” (46) Interestingly, Aiken points out that that missing person is not necessarily Adam, but might also be a female companion or companions. What she does not note, however, is that Sophie Magdalena's longing and possible feminine solidarity does not extend to Anne-Marie, whom she certainly has never seen as an attractive young body bathing in a river.

Like Langbaum's, Aiken's analysis turns on a central paradox: how it is that women are able to write or communicate at all in a world in which almost all forms of representation are dominated by patriarchal tradition. Sophie Magdalena thinks in images; the evocation of the curvaceous Danish landscape at the beginning of “Sorrow-Acre” may also point beyond the texts inscribed both by the tale and the lines traced by the inhabitants of the landscape. Thus the most intimate aspects of feminine experience contain a kind of utopian potential that, if understood, may undercut the cruelty of patriarchy.

One of Aiken's subsidiary points is particularly suggestive, however, and points beyond the transhistorical focus of her argument in general. The uncle's ferocity, she suggests, may well be an attempt to compensate for his inability to father a son.

Both Aiken and Langbaum focus on only one plot line in “Sorrow-Acre,” and neither critic accounts for the interconnections among all three or, especially, the significance of the long argument between uncle and son. And although Langbaum suggests that the tale may represent “the last dance of a dying order” (36), neither critic gives much weight to the historical setting of the work or the date of its publication. Before turning to these issues, I would like to construct a third, ahistorical, interpretation that links the plots surrounding Anne-Marie and Sophie Magdalena in provocative terms.

It is surprising that no one has published an interpretation of this tale, in which Anne-Marie is compared to Christ on several occasions, along the lines of René Girard's theory of scapegoat rituals and plots that, he believes, function in order to allow a community to vent and overcome feelings of intense hostility. It is, after all, Anne-Marie's death that will allow Adam to remain on the estate and the life of the family as a whole to continue, despite the old lord's loss of his only son and inability to father another. It is even possible that he kills Anne-Marie in place of his wife, who he knows will soon be unfaithful to him. Yet in proposing the scapegoat model as universal, Girard also suggests its inevitability. Is this the case in Dinesen's tale? Do the references to the crucifixion combine to suggest that her death is a holy and even desirable one? The fact that here, as so often in Dinesen's work, apparent allusions often alter and reverse the original casts suspicion on this interpretation. The ending of the tale, in which Goske Piil cradles his mother in his arms, after all, is a reverse pietà. What kind of cruelty is at stake here? And what is the significance of the gender of the victim?

There are numerous hints in “Sorrow-Acre” that the old lord may be a representative of a ruling class and of traditions that are foreign, although they have taken root on Danish soil. If the tale opens with a reference to the Danish landscape—“The low, undulating Danish landscape was silent and serene, mysteriously wide-awake in the hour before dawn.” (29)—it describes the history of the land over the past thousand years in terms of a kind of cultural sedimentation that ends with the establishment of the power of a manorial class who inscribe “elegant, geometrical ciphers” on the countryside. (30) The text comments on these structures in terms of an occupation: “They spoke of power, the lime trees paraded round a stronghold.” (30) It points to the foreignness of the rulers' style and its ambiguous relationship to the Danish countryside:

Foreign artisans had been called in to panel and stucco it, and its own inhabitants travelled and brought back ideas, fashions, and things of beauty. Paintings, tapestries, silver and glass from distant countries had been made to feel at home here, and now formed part of Danish country life.


And Adam's first glimpse of his uncle also emphasizes the old lord's distance from the Danish landscape:

As once more he came to the pavilion at the end of the avenue his eyes were caught by a bouquet of delicate colours which could not possibly belong to the Danish summer morning. It was in fact his uncle himself, powdered and silk-stockinged, but still in a brocade dressing-gown, and obviously sunk in deep thought.


Who is the old lord? Adam's initial view of him as a group of exotic colors that seem strikingly foreign to their surroundings poses this question, and suggests that we view the old lord both as a late representative of Danish feudal tradition and as one of a long line of foreigners to take temporary possession of the landscape.

The description of the landscape as a timeless undulating presence upon which human beings have left a series of marks also invites us to consider the various cultural moments evoked here in terms of repetition and reinscription. The narrator names two at the beginning of the tale: Christianity and neoclassicism have both left traces on the countryside. The perspective of Adam and the old lord is considerably more complicated: as already noted, for them, the landscape and its inhabitants call up associations in Greek and Scandinavian mythology, as well as more recent political and philosophical theories. But one moment, I believe the most important, is unnamed, and that is Denmark around 1940, with the threat and actual presence of National Socialism in the countryside.

Reading “Sorrow-Acre” with the context of its publication in mind brings into focus the dialectical potential of this strange and resonant evocation of a cruel moment in Danish cultural history. The old lord's actions serve as a reminder of a certain Danish tradition that is uncomfortably close to the practices of the foreign invaders.

Consider the parallels between “Sorrow-Acre” and two other fictional works composed at about this time. 1942 also saw the filming of the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath or Vredens dag. Like “Sorrow-Acre,” this work focuses on a cruel moment in Danish history, the burning of a witch in the seventeenth century, an action which, the film also suggests, reflects Danish patriarchs' deep-rooted fear of sexuality. That contemporary Scandinavian audiences found the parallels between the representation of Danish scapegoating traditions and the practices of the Nazi invaders compelling is illustrated by the fact that Dreyer's friends urged him to flee the country, which he did immediately after the release of the film in November 1943.5

The similarities between “Sorrow-Acre” and Thomas Mann's treatment of German tradition in his novel Doctor Faustus, which he began in 1943, illuminate another aspect of Dinesen's tale.6 The works of both writers are concerned with the sedimentation and survival of layers of a tradition that make possible—and also attractive—the spread of totalitarian doctrines. Thomas Mann's novel, of course, which allegorizes the history of German culture since the Reformation in the development of the main character, Adrian Leverkühn, goes into the process in considerably greater detail. But the parallels between the two fictions do suggest that we read the evocation of an at first bewildering array of Danish and European cultural models in Dinesen's tale of forty pages from a similar perspective: as an investigation of how and why such practices become possible, at home, as well as abroad.

One short tale, quoted in Chapter Thirteen of Doctor Faustus, presents a particularly striking parallel to “Sorrow-Acre.” This story, originally told to Mann's narrator by the academic theologian Schleppfuss, concerns the psychology of witchburning in Germany. Schleppfuss's narrative has it that a young man, who was in love with a woman named Bärbel, found himself impotent with other women. His fear and shame led step by step to the arrest and condemnation of Bärbel and an old woman who, under repeated torture, admitted to being a witch. The complex and allusive evocation of Anne-Marie's past in “Sorrow-Acre” raises similar issues. For, as the old lord tells her story, she is rumored to have borne an illegitimate child whom she murdered; it is also possible that her son, Goske Piil, is illegitimate. The father of both children is unnamed, but some connection to the old lord is suggested in his remark that “the boy … was my son's playmate, the only other child that I ever knew him to like or to get on with.” (43) Anne-Marie thus plays the role of the Biblical Hagar, the concubine of Abraham, who was cast out after the birth of the legitimate son, Isaac. Here, as well, however, the allusion is reversed: Anne-Marie's ordeal is brought on by the death, not the birth, of a legitimate son. But the double plot, in which the old lord all but offers Adam his wife, also suggests that his actions are governed by a fear and resentment of female sexuality—and sexuality in general.

“Sorrow-Acre” may well find its place as a kind of narrative told within the tradition of elite modernist literature and aesthetics that attempts to come to terms with the heritage and psychology of totalitarian ideologies. In such works, the juxtaposition of images, of moments from the past, can serve to point up the human significance or loss in a particular situation in the present. Juxtaposition and discontinuity have the potential to undercut the danger inherent in the construction of totalizing systems that may go hand in hand with the justification of the most inhuman kinds of behavior. In “Sorrow-Acre,” it is, after all, Adam's ability to see life and death as a magnificent aesthetic synthesis that allows him to walk away from Anne-Marie's ordeal.7

Against the seductively aesthetic patterns of modernist writing, Dinesen sets the story of Anne-Marie, a woman, a peasant, and a victim of tyranny. She is a curious figure: I have already mentioned the implied reversal of the Hagar and pietà motifs in her representation. Another reversal that is particularly pertinent for an understanding of the tale as a whole concerns the name Dinesen gave her: Anne-Marie. The name, which may well have been given to a Danish peasant woman in the eighteenth century, also calls up associations with the French Marianne, which was not only common among the French peasantry at the same time, but which, as the studies of Maurice Agulhon and Lynn Hunt have shown, also named one emblem of the French Revolution, an embodiment of the revolutionary peasantry who also represented freedom, La Liberté. The reversal of the name of the revolutionary emblem may provide a link between the distanced reworking of the old folktale's half-inarticulate protest against the arbitrariness of absolute power and an equally outrageous present, suggesting that we read the actions of the obedient and accepting Anne-Marie as their opposite, as call for rebellion against the unjust actions of a tyrannical overlord.

I would suggest, then, that Dinesen embedded the reworking of the folktale, “Sorrow-Acre,” in a self-consciously aesthetic and aestheticizing art tale in such a way that readers familiar with previous versions might recognize it as an allusion to—and criticism of—the actions of the most recent tyrannical overlords in Denmark: the Germans. But her juxtaposition of oral and written models also has a significance beyond that of the contemporaneous Danish resistance to the occupation: it points to the difficulty of thinking about power, resistance, and individual action in an aesthetic culture in which there are no accepted absolutes and in which the proliferation of aesthetic models obscures the significance of the individual and the potential of actions undertaken either by individuals or by groups. The one explicit reference to power in Dinesen's “Sorrow-Acre” represents it as descending textually from above: “The child of the land would read much within these elegant geometrrical ciphers on the hazy blue. They [the forms of the manorial French garden] spoke of power, the lime trees paraded around a stronghold.” (30) The voice that might speak out against the geometrical inscriptions, that of Anne-Marie or the class she, in at least one context, represents, has been silenced here.

The aestheticizing frames of Dinesen's narrative, then, frames that reach into the delineation of the peasant woman's sacrifice, also point to a “gap,” a dimension of the narrative that is named only ironically in Adam's uncertain democratic arguments against his uncle's actions. In Kierkegaardian terms, the aesthetic interpretations within the narrative evoke their counterpart, an ethical response to the work as a whole. Aiken quite rightly linked the embedded structure of Dinesen's narrative to the invisible and unspoken forms of feminine sexuality and the female body. (175-78) But I would argue that what is unspoken here also transcends gender. Dinesen's ornate and self-conscious text turns back on itself to criticize the very language of modernism—which is also in many cases that of postmodernism—for its failure to bring into focus the significance of individual human beings, their potential to act, or a concept of justice that is not out of step with a sense of beauty.


  1. For an overview of interpretations of Dinesen, see Pelensky, but see also the essays by Arendt and Moi. Almost all book-length studies of Dinesen's work comment on “Sorrow-Acre.” Moi's intertextual focus has been particularly suggestive for my own interpretation of the relationship of “Sorrow-Acre” to oral and textual precedents.

  2. The sole critic to have addressed this issue head on is Thomas Whissen. In his 1976 article, “Without Fear: Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales,” Whissen argues: “These tales are not’resistance’ literature. They would be better described as’reconciliation literature …” (58) Concerning “Sorrow-Acre,” he notes that “the point is simply this, that you beat your oppressors at their own game. Humanitarian impulses such as those that motivated the evacuation of the Jews take on a special edge and call forth unexpected heroism if only because to obey such impulses is to get the better of those who deny them.” (59)

    My thanks for this reference to Marianne Stecher-Hansen, who gave a paper on this subject at the 1995 meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study.

  3. The literature on the German Novelle is enormous, but for good discussions in English, see especially Edwin Keppel Bennett, A History of the German Novelle; John M. Ellis, Narration in the German Novelle; Martin Swales, The German Novelle; and Roger Paulin, The Brief Compass: The Nineteenth-Century German Novelle.

  4. For a sample of recent saga criticism, see Lindow et al.

  5. Begun in 1942, Day of Wrath had its Danish premiere November 13, 1943, some six weeks after the Gestapo's unsuccessful attempt to round up all the Jews in Denmark on the night of October 1-2. They had also attempted, again not always successfully, to arrest a number of Danish intellectuals, including Dreyer's friend, Ebbe de Neergaard.

    On the filming of Day of Wrath and Dreyer's subsequent flight to Sweden, see Drouzy, 283-301. For this critic, Dreyer's modifications in the script that inspired his film signaled a critical intention, shifting the focus of the plot from the psychological conflict between a young wife and her mother-in-law to “une dénonciation de l'appareil ecclésiastique coercitif et répressif” “a denunciation of the coercive and repressive ecclesiastical apparatus.” (287)

  6. On the genesis of Doktor Faustus, see Mendelsohn. See also Mann's Entstehung.

  7. Isak Dinesen's storytelling has much in common with the ideas of Walter Benjamin on the cultural significance both of storytelling and of mechanical reproduction. Both techniques preserve, albeit in degraded form, the sacred beliefs and practices of homogeneous communities, beliefs we can only begin to recall and use again through a kind of contemplation that understands the fallen present in a dialectical relationship to a past imagined as its opposite. Several commentators on Dinesen's work, above all Judith Thurman, have noted the parallels between the two writers' nostalgic notions of storytelling, and Benjamin's emphasis on the juxtaposition of moments, of dialectical images, as a first step in imagining a better world certainly brings into focus the problem of perspective in Dinesen's narratives, as well as the negative importance of the contexts of mass culture and totalitarianism for her work.

    In her chapter on Winter's Tales, Thurman comments:

    But the very fact that Isak Dinesen became a storyteller rather than, say, a novelist was a moral choice. She was taking side with the “heroic” past, and with the fabulists of an older age, against her own contemporaries. The old tales have a common ground with hers, which Walter Benjamin suggests with his usual felicity: “The wisest thing—so the fairy tale taught mankind in olden times, and teaches children to this day—is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and high spirits. (This is how the fairy tale polarizes Mut, courage, dividing it dialectically into Untermut, that is, cunning, and Übermut, high spirits).”

    Dinesen's tales make the same point—in a dialectical manner. They contrast Christian morality with its guilt and humility—which make it passive—to what could be called an heroic morality that is based on honor: trial by ordeal, incurring risk, and taking its consequences.


    To these perceptive remarks I would only add that it may be less easy to be sure with whom—or what—Blixen takes sides than Thurman suggests here.

Works Cited

Agulhon, Maurice. Marianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France, 1789-1880. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981.

Anon. “Sorg-Agre.” Paul La Cour. “Danske Sagaer.” Tilskueren (March 1931): 231-40.

Anon. “Sorrow-Acre.” Trans. Donald Hannah. Donald Hannah. Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality. New York: Random House, 1971. 81-82.

Aiken, Susan Hardy. “Dinesen's ‘Sorrow-Acre’: Tracing the Woman's Line.” Contemporary Literature 25:2 (1984): 156-186.

———. Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990.

Arendt, Hannah. “Isak Dinesen, 1885-1962.” 1968. Reprinted in Arendt, Men in Dark Times, 95-109; and in Daguerreotypes and Other Essays. Trans. P. M. Mitchell and W. D. Paden. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979. vii-xxv.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969. 83-109.

———. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969. 155-200.

———. “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969. 217-251.

Bennett, Edwin Keppel. A History of the German Novelle. 1934. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1961.

Blixen, Karen. Vinter Eventyr. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1942.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978.

Dinesen, Isak. “Sorrow-Acre.” Winter's Tales. New York: Vintage, 1961. 29-69.

———. Winter's Tales. New York: Random House; London: Putnam, 1942.

Dinnerstein, Dorothy. The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Drouzy, Maurice. Carl Th. Dreyer, né Nilsson. Paris: Cerf, 1982.

Ellis, John M. Narration in the German Novelle: Theory and Interpretation. London, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974.

Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986.

Hannah, Donald. “Isak Dinesen” and Karen Blixen: The Mask and The Reality. New York: Random House, 1971.

Hunt, Lynn. “The Imagery of Radicalism.” Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984. 87-119.

La Cour, Paul. “Danske Sagaer” (“Danish Sagas”). Tilskueren (March 1931): 231-40.

La Cour, Paul. “Sorg-Agre.” “Danske Sagaer.” Tilskueren (March 1931): 234-40.

Langbaum, Robert. Isak Dinesen's Art: The Gayety of Vision. 1964. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975.

Lindow, John, Lars Lönnroth, and Gerd Wolfgang Weber, eds. Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature: New Approaches to Textual Analysis and Literary Criticism. Odense: Odense Univ. Press, 1986.

Mann, Thomas. Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde. Ed. Peter de Mendelsohn. Gesammelte Schriften in Enzelbänden: Frankfurter Ausgabe. 1947. Frankfurt/Main: S. Fischer, 1980.

———. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1948. New York: Vintage, 1971.

———. Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus: Roman eines Romans. Amsterdam: Bermann-Fischer, 1949.

———. The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Knopf, 1961.

Mendelsohn, Peter de. Nachbemerkungen des Herausgebers. Thomas Mann. Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde. Gesammelte Schriften in Enzelbänden: Frankfurter Ausgabe. Frankfurt/Main: S. Fischer, 1980. 685-744.

Moi, Toril. “’Hele verden en scene’: En analyse av Karen Blixens’Storme.’” Edda (1986:2): 149-161.

Olrik, Axel. Nogle Grundsœtninger for Sagnforskning. Danmarks Folkeminder 23. Copenhagen: Det Scho/nbergske Forlag: 1921.

———. Principles for Oral Narrative Research. Trans. Kirsten Wolf and Jody Jensen. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1992.

Paulin, Roger. The Brief Compass: The Nineteenth-Century German Novelle. Oxford, New York: Clarendon Press, 1985.

Pelensky, Olga Anastasia, ed. Isak Dinesen: Critical Views. Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press, 1993.

Swales, Martin. The German Novelle. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985.

Thurman, Judith. Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Whissen, Thomas. “Without Fear: Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales and Occupied Denmark.” International Fiction Review 3 (1976): 56-61.

Ros Ballaster (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Ballaster, Ros. “Wild Nights and Buried Letters: The Gothic ‘Unconscious’ of Feminist Criticism.” In Modern Gothic: A Reader, edited by Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, pp. 58-70. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Ballaster discusses “The Monkey” as a work of female Gothic literature.]

“As dream or nightmare, or both at once, [sexuality] reigns in our lives as an anarchic force, refusing to be chastened and tamed by sense or conscience to a sentence in a revolutionary manifesto.”1 Cora Kaplan here announces the “agenda” of feminism in its “second-wave” from 1970 onwards, the attempt to analyse the role of sexuality as the key to both the oppression and liberation of women. That her pursuit of the disturbing signs of sexuality in feminist writing lights upon Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is by no means coincidental, for feminist criticism has consistently found its own “unconscious” in what might be dubbed “female Romanticism”.

Two important articles of Anglo-American feminist criticism, Mary Jacobus's “The Buried Letter: Villette”, first published in 1979, and Cora Kaplan's “Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism”, first published in 1983, locate the origin of the modern construction of “woman” as over-determined signifier of sexuality in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century culture, understanding Wollstonecraft's polemical writing as both symptom and analysis of that construction. For Kaplan and Jacobus, Wollstonecraft's Vindication dramatises the tension between desire and reason in terms of the return of a primal complex in the adult ego, figured through the discursive tactics of “sensibility”, that the text struggles imperfectly to repress. Jacobus concludes her analysis of Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853) by locating it in the feminist tradition of Wollstonecraft's Vindication which though “directed against the infantilising Rousseauistic ideal of feminine ‘sensibility’”:

not only advocates the advantages for women of a rational (rather than sentimental) education, but attempts to insert the author herself into the predominantly male discourse of Enlightenment Reason, or “sense.” Yet, paradoxically, it is within this shaping Rousseauistic sensibility that Mary Wollstonecraft operates as both woman and writer—creating in her two highly autobiographical novels, Mary (1788) and ten years later, The Wrongs of Woman, fictions which, even as they anatomise the constitution of femininity within the confines of “sensibility,” cannot escape its informing preoccupations and literary influence.2

Kaplan, too, understands Wollstonecraft's writing as bedevilled by the inescapable language of sensibility (apparently coterminous with sexuality):

Woman's reason may be the psychic heroine of A Vindication, but its Gothic villain, a polymorphous perverse sexuality, creeping out of every paragraph and worming its way into every warm corner of the text, seems in the end to win out.


In these accounts, then, “sensibility” has an uncanny facility of reappearing at the point when its repression is most powerfully asserted; it functions as a form of childhood memory for the rational woman author, but, significantly, both Jacobus and Kaplan stress that this is not a prelinguistic feminine semiotic pressure on symbolic paternal language, but acknowledged as itself a construction of the symbolic which must be overcome by the woman writer as the origin of her oppression rather than source of her liberation.

Both Kaplan and Jacobus understand the problematic of this division between the passionate and the rational self in the female writing subject as symptomatic of modern feminist theory in general. Jacobus suggests that in attempting to trace the process of repression at work in fiction the feminist critic can find a mirror for her own sense of the tension between the “prevailing conventions of academic literary criticism” and the political urgency of her own “anger, rebellion and rage”, a process that Lucy Snowe's struggle to narrate her “self” in Villette vividly figures (60). Kaplan insists that the feminist project must forsake its pursuit of a “feminist humanism” that argues for the possibility of women being released into a “natural” sexuality outside the ideological distortions Wollstonecraft so effectively exposes. Locating Adrienne Rich in a continuum with Wollstonecraft in that her account of “compulsory heterosexuality”, like Wollstonecraft's of “sensibility”, is one of a complex and multivalent system of male power that alienates women from their true desire (for Rich the desire for other women, for Wollstonecraft the desire for rationality which she identifies as synonymous with power), Kaplan points out that Wollstonecraft's Enlightenment project for feminism “never had much going for it—not because an immanent and irrepressible sexuality broke through levels of female self-denial, but rather because the anti-erotic ethic itself foregrounded and constructed a sexualised subject” (50).

Female Romanticism, then, finds itself relocating women as subjects only in terms of their relation to the sexuality/sensibility it seeks to deny. Sexuality here might be seen as structurally equivalent to Freud's understanding of the role of the unconscious in the construction of subjectivity. Though it exists only in relation to the ego it is ultimately determining. The critic's or analyst's task is to pursue the traces of its presence in the symptomatic text, a presence which is manifested in repression rather than expression. This essay seeks to evaluate and question the role of sexuality as the determining “unconscious” of feminist criticism which is most powerfully felt in the centrality of the Gothic to Anglo-American critical appropriations of a psychoanalytic and post-structuralist feminist tradition from France. If, in feminist psychoanalytic literary theory, the Freudian “hysteric” emerges as a proto-feminist (writer), struggling to bring into expression through displaced bodily (or textual) signs her experience of the denial of female agency in a patriarchal culture, then it is the Gothic heroine who most powerfully and explicitly “represents” this hysterical condition to the feminist reader. This version of the Gothic “heroine” profoundly restricts the possibilities of a feminist account of the representational architectonics of women's oppression.

Ann Radcliffe's Gothic novels importantly distinguish between material oppression and psychic confusion; her heroines are explicitly criticised for seizing on “supernatural” explanations which prove easier for them to accept than the realities of male power and material exploitation in the adult world they are being forced to enter. Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), not only learns that seemingly supernatural phenomena have rational material explanations but also that it is not sexual desire that motivates her male oppressor, Montoni, but material gain and political power in which he views women simply as a means rather than an end. Emily's dangerous lack of knowledge is not solely sexual innocence but political ignorance. Imprisoned in Montoni's castle in Italy she comes to realise that he is the head of a group of banditti and assumes he “meant to retrieve his broken fortunes by the plunder of travellers”.3 Radcliffe adds that this supposition “however natural, was in part erroneous, for she was a stranger to the state of this country and to the circumstances, under which its frequent wars were partly conducted” (358). Montoni's ambition goes beyond the acquisition of wealth to the acquisition of political power, in which his marriage to Emily's aunt and his pursuit of control of Emily's person is only a small part itself. The spectre, then, that haunts Mysteries of Udolpho is the possibility that the Gothic sense of female terror may be a recognition that in the pursuit of politico-material power women are no more than exchange tokens between men; the “hidden” supernatural and sexual causes which the text puts into play may be nothing more than displacements or smokescreens which provide the Gothic heroine with an illusory sense of the possibility of a political agency or significance from which she is, in reality, excluded. Feminist literary critics have tended to repeat this movement of wilful “misprision” on the part of the Gothic heroine, finding it easier to explore questions of psychic division and sexual repression in women's writing than material social and political oppression. The article concludes by offering a consideration of one of Isak Dinesen's most complex and disturbing Seven Gothic Tales (1934), “The Monkey”, to highlight the ways in which Gothic fiction inscribes its own understanding of the dangers of reading a repressed desire as determining origin rather than symptom of women's alienation from social agency.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick suggests in her 1986 preface to the reprint of her 1980 The Coherence of Gothic Conventions that psychoanalysis appears to “make sense” of the Gothic because, like the Gothic, it too is engaged in a distinctively Romantic “propagation of a … problematics of individual ‘character’”.4 Sedgwick posits that Gothic fiction of the late eighteenth century falls into a gender division that can be equated with Freud's gendered distinction between the paranoid and the hysteric:

Call for convenience's sake, the heroine of the Gothic a classic hysteric, its hero a classic paranoid. The immobilising and costly struggle, in the hysteric, to express graphically through her bodily hieroglyphic what cannot come into existence as narrative, resembles in this the labor of the paranoid subject to forestall being overtaken by the feared/desired other, by himself mimetically reproducing the perceived or projected desire/threat of the other in a temporarily paralysed form.


Two distinct traditions, male and female, might then be understood to co-exist in the Gothic most strongly marked perhaps in the distinction between Matthew Lewis' tormented Faustian hero, Ambrosius in The Monk (1796) and Ann Radcliffe's dutiful sensibility-sated Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Mary Jacobus's essay, “The Buried Letter”, points to the “hysterical” structure of Charlotte Brontë's mid-nineteenth-century novel which “mirrors” the hysteria of its heroine, Lucy Snowe. The representational “order” of the Victorian realist text is repeatedly punctured by a spectral Romanticism which cannot be put into narrative except in the shape of a disturbance of linear historicised courtship to marriage plot. It is the “ghost” of the nun of the Rue Rossette which “triggers” in the narrative the pressure of hysterical desire in Lucy's narrative. The nun, Jacobus argues, can be only understood as “the alien, ex-centric self which no image can mirror—only the structure of language” (52). Similarly, Kaplan's account of Wollstonecraft's Vindication understands the hidden presence of sexuality (bearing in mind Freud's gloss to the term “unheimlich” drawn from Schelling that it is “what ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light”5) as visible only in terms of disturbance of the rational structure of argument in the text.

Disturbances of language are, then, a register of the struggle of repressed desire to signify just as the hysteric's physical disturbances (failures of physical function in particular) indicate a repressed childhood trauma which cannot be directly “spoken”. In the case of both hysteric and paranoiac, internal psychic contradiction is mirrored in narrative through the use of techniques that point to duality. In the paranoid text the figure of the double serves as a projection outward of self-division (most often in the case of the Gothic “monster” or “villain” who “acts out” the hero's repressed desires); in the hysterical text the narrative itself takes on the features of the internal split within the heroine (the puncturing of narrative realism with dream sequences or the explosion of an excessive Romantic rhetoric in the linear progress of the tale). However, the double is, I would argue, not exclusive to the male Gothic nor is the hysterical disturbance of language exclusive to the female Gothic.

In what follows I argue that Isak Dinesen's short story “The Monkey” selfconsciously deploys the use of the device of the double in a narrative that might be understood otherwise to follow the hysterical conventions of the female Gothic.6 In so doing, she begins to construct a version of a female “uncanny” that is expressed through paranoid projection rather than hysterical introjection and leads her reader back to a recognition of the material social and economic grounds of women's oppression rather than the psychosexual contradictions that in the Romantic period of the Gothic had served to displace or conceal those grounds.

Isak Dinesen's “The Monkey” powerfully dramatises the complexity of the position of women in Gothic fiction. In this story, set in the first half of the nineteenth century, a young guardsman named Boris comes to visit his aunt, the Prioress of Closter Seven (a secular convent in Northern Europe for widowed and unmarried mature women), to request her aid in arranging a marriage for him that will serve to dispel the rumours circulating at court of his involvement, along with others in his regiment, in crimes connected “with those romantic and sacred shores of ancient Greece” (77). His aunt suggests Athena Hopbehallus, the daughter of a Polish Count, whose estates border the convent, and Boris duly visits to make his offer. He finds the Count celebrating his success in a lengthy law-suit over his lands in Poland and delighted to propose the match to Athena “a strong young woman of eighteen, six feet high and broad in proportion, with a pair of shoulders which could lift and carry a sack of wheat” (92). The following day, however, the Count writes to both Boris and the Prioress to express his regret that Athena will not comply. The Prioress plans to compromise Athena, inviting her to dinner at the convent, plying her with drink and then sending Boris to the state rooms where she is sleeping. Boris is to seduce her inspired by a mysterious draught the Prioress administers to him. However, the seduction becomes a violent physical struggle which ends when Boris forces Athena into a kiss that causes her to faint. The next morning the Prioress summons both to her office and persuades the innocent Athena that she has been so compromised that she must marry Boris, but Athena swears to kill him as soon as the knot has been tied. At this point, the Prioress's pet monkey returns from one of its regular and mysterious absences, appearing at the window and finally breaking the glass. The Prioress struggles to escape but after a brief scuffle:

The old woman with whom they had been talking was, writhing and dishevelled, forced to the floor; she was scrunched and changed. Where she had been, a monkey was now crouching and whining, altogether beaten, trying to take refuge in a corner of the room. And where the monkey had been jumping about, rose, a little out of breath from the effort, her face still a deep rose, the true Prioress of Closter Seven.


Athena's glance at Boris affirms that what they have seen means that “an insurmountable line would be for ever drawn” (120) between them and the rest of the world.

‘The Monkey”, in terms of both plot and narrative structure, makes visible much that conventionally remains hidden in Gothic fiction. Plot, narrative voice, and symbolic language alike all point to the “disappearance” of women just when they seem to be most visible. The reasons for Athena's resistance to marriage to Boris are obscure. The possibility that hers is a hysterical refusal of sexual feeling is aired by the Prioress/Monkey who describes her rejection of Boris's proposal as that of “a fanatical virgin” (99). Her response to Boris's kiss is excessive: “[a]s if he had run a rapier straight through her, the blood sank from her face, her body stiffened in his arms like that of a slow-worm when you hit it” (113). Dinesen's use of a third person “personal” narration from Boris's perspective makes it impossible to determine whether Athena's response here is that of orgasm or rape victim. Athena is only ever seen and interpreted, most often by analogy with animals: the slow-worm here, earlier as having the eyes of “a young lioness or eagle” (92), “a young she-bear” in her conflict with Boris (113). Boris's interpretation of Athena is also, however, the key to her rejection of him and symbolically of the function of exchange object of which his proposal makes her aware. This is Athena's loss of innocence, her coming-to-knowledge, that, despite being brought up in “an atmosphere of incense burnt to woman's loveliness” (93), ultimately she is for her prospective husband nothing other than the “exquisitely beautiful skeleton” he fantasises she may become after death:

Less frivolous than the traditional old libertine who in his thoughts undresses the women with whom he sups, Boris liberated the maiden of her strong and fresh flesh together with her clothes, and imagined that he might be very happy with her, that he might even fall in love with her, could he have her in her beautiful bones alone … Many human relations, he thought, would be infinitely easier if they could be carried out in the bones alone.


The “bones” of the relationship between Athena and Boris is, of course, an exchange in which sexuality is precisely a “cover” or “flesh”, which conceals the reality that Boris's desire is not for a woman at all.

This is made clear in an inset narrative rendered as Boris rides to Hopballehus to make his proposal. He recalls travelling with a friend and a doll theatre six months previously. On Walpurgis night, when the two young men are lodging in a farmhouse, three girls enter their room and strip naked in front of a mirror in accordance with the tradition that they will catch a glimpse of future husbands. Boris, we are told, in response to this memory:

thought with deep sadness of all the young men who had been, through the ages, perfect in beauty and vigour—young Pharoahs with clean-cut faces hunting in chariots along the Nile, young Chinese sages, silk-clad, reading within the live shade of willows—who had been changed, against their wishes, into supporters of society, fathers-in-law, authorities on food and morals.


Boris understands relations between men and women as purely functional, indeed destructive of the romance, poetry, and beauty that exist between men. The reduction of women to nothing more than a function is not, the story makes clear, a product of a homosocial/heterosexual exchange system that Boris seeks to enter in order to conceal his homosexuality. Homosexuality, in Luce Irigaray's terms, acts out visibly the law of a homosocial order (desire for relations between men), not attempting to veil the mediating function of women between men behind “romantic” or “sensual” displays of feeling:

The “other” homosexual relations, masculine ones, are … forbidden. Because they openly interpret the law according to which society operates, they threaten in fact to shift the horizon of that law. Besides, they challenge the nature, status, and “exogamic” necessity of the product of exchange. By short-circuiting the mechanisms of commerce, might they also expose what is really at stake? Furthermore, they might lower the sublime value of the standard, the yard-stick. Once the penis itself becomes merely a means to pleasure, pleasure among men, the phallus loses its power. Sexual pleasure, we are told, is best left to those creatures who are ill-suited for the seriousness of symbolic rules, namely, women.7

Athena's father, a worshipper of women, who, it is hinted, conducted a romance with Boris's mother in his past, also understands marriage as a contract which allows the continuation of male property and power through the bodies of women. His letter to Boris complains:

She has been to me both son and daughter, and I have in my mind seen her wearing the old coats of armour of Hopballehus. Too late I realise that she is wearing it, not as the young St. George fighting dragons, but as Azrael, the angel of death, of our house.


The association of Athena with death is here explicitly connected with her refusal to enter into reproductive relations with a man. Boris's desire for Athena as skeleton is made into a reality on the morning after her “seduction” when we are told “[s]he had in reality a death's-head upon her strong shoulders” (115).

Both homosexual and heterosexual men associate women who refuse to enter the exchange relations of marriage with death. And yet, Athena's response makes it clear that it is these very relations that are death-bringing for her as social agent. It is her conviction that she has been compromised into marriage which makes her appear to be a death's-head. The fear of “disappearance” in marriage which Athena's fierce determination to follow the lesson of the Great Bear that she and Boris admire on the evening of his visit to Hopballehus to “keep your individuality in the crowd” (94) indicates, is mirrored by the ambiguous transfer of identity between the Prioress and the monkey. The monkey is a profoundly overdetermined signifier in Dinesen's tale, associated with primitive culture (through its origins in Zanzibar), with sexual lust, and social cunning (in its machinations to bring about an alliance between Athena and Boris). Its associations and the difficulty of interpreting its function in the tale are further expanded in the rendering of the evening conversation at Hopballehus. The Count's solicitor in Poland (who has just secured his inheritance for him) also owns a pet monkey we are informed and in the Count's country of origin there are “Wendish idols … of which the goddess of love had the face and façade of a beautiful woman, while, if you turned her around, she presented at the back the image of a monkey” (93). Significantly, it is Athena who asks “how … did they know, in the case of that goddess of love, which was the front and which the back?” (94). Like most Gothic “monsters”, of which Frankenstein's monster is the archetype, the monkey is a double which troubles the notion of secure autonomous identity.

The double, as Sedgwick notes, is a significant feature of the “masculine” paranoid Gothic narrative, functioning as a dangerous projection of the masculine psyche and enabling the displacement of homosocial desire into a homophobic construction of “otherness”. However, the monkey's doubleness is not easily explicable within this model and does not seem to be particularly “uncanny” for the male hero of the tale; Athena is its target. “The presence of some unknown danger”, Boris meditates over dinner, “was impressed upon the girl by the Prioress's manner toward her” (103). That the monkey doubles for the Prioress also suggests that “uncanniness” is specific to women. Dinesen's tale, I would suggest, offers the prospect of reading its heroine as a hysteric, only to put in its place a feminised version of the traditionally “masculine” plot of paranoia. The monkey literalises Athena's fear, not of her own sexual desire, but of her own status as “doll” in a narrative scripted by mysterious forces beyond her control.

Speculation about the possibility of a specifically female “uncanny” has only recently begun to surface in discussion of the Gothic.8 Helene Cixous in her essay “Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud's Das Unheimliche” is a significant, if oblique, contribution to that speculation.9 Cixous draws out attention to Freud's refusal to countenance the importance of the figure of the doll Olympia in the uncanny effects of Hoffmann's story, “The Sandman”, which he takes as his example.10 Freud asserts: “I cannot think—and I hope most readers of the story will agree with me—that the theme of the doll Olympia, who is to all appearances a living being, is by any means the only, or indeed the most important element of uncanniness evoked by the story” (348). Uncertainty over whether a figure is living or inanimate is, according to Freud, far less “uncanny” than the hero, Nathaniel's, fear of losing his eyes at the hands of the Sandman, itself a displaced fear of castration, which is the punishment he fantasises will be the result of his jealousy of his father. If she stands for anything, Freud concludes, “[t]his automatic doll can be nothing less than a materialisation of Nathaniel's feminine attitude towards his father in his infancy” (354). Cixous teases out her own understanding of Freud's text as necessarily repressing the image of the doll through a process of “inverted repetition” (533), because the process of his own writing is that of “a kind of puppet theatre in which real dolls or fake dolls, real and simulated life, are manipulated by a sovereign but capricious stage-setter” (525). Cixous supports her argument by nothing Freud's tactical exclusions of the involved narrative structure and heterogeneous points of view of Hoffmann's tale in order to manipulate it into the linear Oedipal account of the construction of masculine paranoia he seeks. It is, then, Cixous concludes, precisely the fictionality of Hoffmann's tale that Freud seeks to repress, a fictionality associated with the figure of the doll, which is in turn associated with death: “Neither real nor fictitious, ‘fiction’ is a secretion of death, an anticipation of nonrepresentation, a doll, a hybrid body composed of language and silence that, in the movement which turns it and which it turns, invents doubles, and death” (548).

This long detour through Freud and Cixous returns us to Dinesen's “The Monkey” and its preoccupations with theatricality, death, and the double, at first associated with femininity but gradually revealed to be a construction of male homosociality which, far from threatening masculine identity, uncannily poses the problem to women that they may be dispensable, that what appears to be the front (the female form, sexuality, love) may be the back (the monkey, trickery, statecraft). The monkey, then, rather than doubling for the repressed desire of the unmarried woman (the Prioress/Athena), may be doubling for the pursuit of male power in the form of statecraft (with which the monkey is most often symbolically associated in the tale). Dinesen's refusal to give us access to the perspectives of the Prioress/Monkey or Athena only serves to reinforce the text's dramatisation of the reduction of women to exchange function in patriarchal culture which Boris's attempt to conceal his homosexuality through heterosexual marriage only makes more visible because he does not seek to conceal the property relations behind a rhetoric of desire or idealisation. The nuns of Closter Seven, we are told, are disturbed by the rumour of Boris's Greek sins because:

To all of them it had been a fundamental article of faith that woman's loveliness and charm, which they themselves represented in their own sphere and according to their gifts, must constitute the highest inspiration and prize of life. In their own individual cases the world might have spread snares in order to capture this prize of their being at less cost than they meant it to, or there might have been a strange misunderstanding, a lack of appreciation, on the part of the world, but still the dogma held good.


Dinesen's deployment of a paranoid Gothic narrative of the double to extrapolate the conventionally “hysterical” Gothic text of the unmarried heroine's fear of enclosure/live burial allows her to make explicit what Jacobus and Kaplan suggest has to remain hidden in the tradition of post-Romantic feminist versions of the Gothic originating in Wollstonecraft—that it may not be female sexuality that requires correction, control, or release in the new bourgeois order but the masculine desire for power. “Villette”, Jacobus comments, “can only be silent about the true nature and origin of Lucy's oppression” (46) because it continues to enshrine marriage as a form of spiritual resolution of division and doubleness of the human psyche. Similarly, Kaplan complains that Wollstonecraft finds herself unable to pursue her argument in the Vindication to its logical conclusion because the polemical trajectory of the Vindication is to an assertion of women's right to claim a different construction of subjectivity, that of bourgeois “masculine” reason, for themselves:

What the argument moves towards, but never quite arrives at, is the conclusion that it is male desire that must be controlled and contained if women are to be free and rational. This conclusion cannot be reached because an idealised bourgeois male is the standard towards which women are groping, as well as the reason they are on their knees.


In the female Gothic, then, it seems to be the case that what cannot be said is what is remarkably obvious, that women in patriarchal culture are accorded only one function, that of mediating male power, to which their own sexual desires are immaterial. In this formulation, hysteria becomes not a mode of resistance but a means of concealing these relations of power and property by displacement into internalised struggle over the repression of sexual desire. Ellen Moers, whose influential work Literary Women placed the Gothic at the centre of feminist literary history, astutely recognises the ways in which the female Gothic facilitates the internalisation of struggle and contradiction within its hystericised heroines:

The savagery of girlhood accounts in part for the persistence of the Gothic mode into our own time; also the self-disgust, the self-hatred, and the impetus to self-destruction that have been increasingly prominent themes in the writing of women in the twentieth century. Despair is hardly the exclusive province of any one sex or class in our age, but to give visual form to the fear of self, to hold anxiety up to the Gothic mirror of the imagination, may well be more common in the writings of women than of men.11

Dinesen's use of the figure of the double in “The Monkey” allows her to explore the possibility of women's externalisation of their fears, just as the “masculine” Gothic's paranoid structure privileges projection over introjection as a resolution of contradiction. Athena's “unlikeliness” as a Gothic heroine is her strength; she externalises rather than internalises her fear of being reduced to an exchange function, engaging in ferocious hand-to-hand combat with her suitor, literally “fighting off” his advances. Athena attempts to make herself visible as subject in a “plot” which is premised upon the absence or exclusion of women from the mechanisms of power (the monkey has substituted for its mistress).

Returning to Kaplan's and Jacobus's analogy between female Romanticism and feminist criticism, then, it might be argued that for both the urgent “unconscious” fear that haunts the writing process is that the construction of the possibility of female agency through an investigation into the specificity of a repressed female desire may be to reproduce rather than challenge the ideology of patriarchal power. As Michel Foucault points out in his History of Sexuality, the modern “hysterisation” of women's bodies “whereby the feminine body was analysed—qualified and disqualified—as being thoroughly saturated with sexuality” is one of a number of discursive techniques that serve to maintain control over and secure the consent of subjects to existing power relations.12 Athena's “trial of strength” (115) in “The Monkey” is to resist the negation of her agency, to exceed the imposition of the status of pure function in an exchange; that her resistance is “read” (by the Monkey/Prioress and Boris) as a refusal of sexuality is a means of relocating women solely as sexual rather than political subjects. There can be no easy negotiation out of the complexity of the relation between sexual and political identity for women, as both the Gothic/Romantic texts and their critics that have been under discussion here make abundantly clear. To resort to the image of the hysteric as revolutionary sexual subject is, however, no solution precisely because by definition the hysteric signifies nothing beyond the suffusion of the female body with the displaced signs of sexual desire. What the hysteric signifies is the desire for political agency itself for which, as Dinesen's short story demonstrates, sexuality is itself a displacement or substitution. To be “free” for women is then not to be “sexual”, but to be free not to signify sexuality alone.


  1. C. Kaplan, “Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism”, Sea Changes: Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986), p. 32.

  2. M. Jacobus, “The Buried Letter: Villette” in her Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 59; Charlotte Brontë, Villette (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979); Mary Wolletonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Mary Wollstonecraft: Political Writings (Oxford University Press, 1994).

  3. A. Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 358.

  4. E. Kosofsky Sedgwick, Preface, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, 2nd edn (London: Methuen, 1986), p. vii.

  5. S. Freud, “Das Unheimliche”, Art and Literature, ed. Albert Dickson, vol. 14, Penguin Freud Library (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 345.

  6. Isak Dinesen, Seven Gothic Tales (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963).

  7. L. Irigaray, “Commodities Among Themselves”, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porterwith Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 193.

  8. See, in particular, Claire Kahane, “The Gothic Mirror”, The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, eds. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, Madelon Sprengnether (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 334-51.

  9. H. Cixous, “Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud's Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”), New Literary History, vol. 7:3 (1976), pp. 525-48.

  10. Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann's short story “Der Sandmann” first appeared in his Nachstücke (1816-17). For a modern translation see Tales of Hoffmann, ed. and trans. R. J. Hollingdale et al. (London: Penguin Books, 1982).

  11. E. Moers, Literary Women (London: Women's Press, 1978), p. 107.

  12. M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume One, trans. Robert Hurley (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), p. 104.

Helen Stoddart (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Stoddart, Helen. “Isak Dinesen and the Fiction of Gothic Gravity.” In Modern Gothic: A Reader, edited by Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, pp. 81-8. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Stoddart underscores the importance of storytelling and elucidates the theme of gravity in the stories of Seven Gothic Tales.]

There is really no getting away from the business of story-telling in Seven Gothic Tales.1 The emphasis on the importance of the telling of tales is precisely and continuously foregrounded and this is the first aspect of the text I'd like to look at in this essay. It is frequently the subject for self-reflexive contemplation as the tales debate and discuss the pleasure, pain, poverty, or wealth which may be at stake behind the labour of just getting the tale told. But this thematic also has a knock-on effect on the way we read the narrative structures themselves. Each tale is comprised of so many different tales, following the tradition of the convoluted historical Gothics of Melmoth and Frankenstein, that this self-reflexivity and structural complexity merely serves to draw attention to the diegetic apparatus which comprises their narration and hence underlines their fictionality, the “make-up”, the structures of their being made. This all makes the term “tale-telling” a doubly appropriate one here.

The second pervasive theme I want to look at is that of weightlessness and gravity. When I refer to gravity here I mean it in the sense of gravitational law, though the double meaning implicit in the word holds a pertinence which I hope to come to.

So, to turn to the texts themselves. It is “The Dreamers” most of all which explores the grandest of heights and the lowest of depths involved in the telling and the acting out of tales. In terms of narrative structure it is also probably the most complex. It is constituted through three levels of narration, of stories within stories (the third person extra-diegetic voice with which the story begins, the intro-diegetic character of Lincoln Forsner who then relays three further hypo-diegetic narratives—Pilot's, the Baron's, and Marcus Cocoxa's). The “live” and lived nature of the tale and the importance of its oral reworking are implied throughout and this is not without consequence. Lincoln Forsner, a travelling English gentleman and, therefore, an amateur in contrast to the professional and “much renowned story-teller” Mira Jama, complains that Mira Jama's telling of the story of the sultan and the virgin was much better the first time he heard it. A turn of event or an edge of character may have lost definition in the performance, as a result of the declining fortunes of its teller. The first rule of the tale, then, is that it must be “live” but as a result it has no life of its own; its production is too contingent with the life of its teller which means it can never possess an essential existence within itself.

Later on, at the point in Lincoln's own memoir where he describes his search for Olalla (Pellegrina Leone, the ex-prima donna of the operatic stage has several pseudonyms) in a mountain blizzard, he pauses for comment:

“Do you know, Mira,” Lincoln said, interrupting himself in his tale, “that this is the first time that I have thought at all of our hour up there? I only remember it now, step by step so to say, as I tell it. I do not know why I have not thought of it before.”


So it's only in the act of a performance that the events of this episode come to be recorded at all. Their existence fully depends on the memory of the apparent narrator who, as we witness, is as inclined to repress and forget as he is perhaps to embroider. The stories, therefore are characterised here by their mutability and this is the second rule of the tale.

It also becomes quite apparent that the next criterion of any good story is that it must not be true, indeed, it must have obtained some tangible distance from lived reality. The real test of the tale's ability to persuade of its own reality is its efficacy in producing passions and emotions in its listeners. To do this, a certain distance must come into play, a distance which, as Mira Jama laments here, he has now lost:

as I have lived I have lost the capacity of fear. When you know what things are really like, you can make no poems about them. When you have had talks with ghosts and connexions with the devils you are, in the end, more afraid of your creditors than of them; and when you have been made a cuckold you are no longer nervous about cuckoldry. I have become too familiar with life; it can no longer delude me into believing that one thing is much worse than the other. The day and the dark, an enemy and a friend—I know them to be about the same. How can you make others afraid when you have forgotten fear yourself?


If you have lived the passions of the story yourself it ceases to be a real story at all so, almost paradoxically, no on can believe in it or any longer be stirred by it. This the same with anything which involves a performance and is much like Marcus Cocoxa's description of Pellegrina Leone's singing later on in the story: “Ah Rupia, kama na Majassee it is a very lovely song about true and pure love. Only a whore has ever sung it well, that I know of” (293-4). Great and effective performance, then, always implies separation and distance from experience.

An offshoot of this necessity is an ongoing and implicit rejection of the narcissism of the Cartesian formula of existence. This is most acutely sent up (or has its gravity removed) through the character of Pilot. For Pilot, everything, to the point of absurdity, becomes meaningful only insofar as it justifies his own identity and existence: “I prefer Moselle to Rhenish wine; consequently I exist.” “A person has given me a nickname. Consequently I exist” (255). But the rejection of a stable and determinate relationship between consciousness and being in this Cartesian sense is also a rejection of a particular kind of masculinism which validates the controlling symbolic universe of men at the expense of women. The women who throw open the gap in these tales between identity and existence rely on dream, imagination, acting, and performance. They are at once rejecting this heavy-handed masculinism and are also following an existing model of Gothic character figuration. As Eve Sedgwick has already noted in The Coherence of Gothic Conventions: “It was from the Gothic novel that this drama of substance and abstraction made its way into more easily intelligible, modern-sounding forms.”2 The decription is of Vashti's stage performance in Villette. Vashti is left grappling with the abstractions of her theatrical role but is forced to end her performance when a fire starts in the theatre. It's no coincidence that the point at which Pellegrina Leone abandons the bother of grappling with and instead actually becomes various abstractions of character, that is, begins her life as a real performer, is when a fire during a performance causes the injury which terminates her singing career. This is like a prefiguring of Pellegrina's later comment in “Echoes”, the sequel to “The Dreamers” in Last Tales (1957),3 when she discovers her voice in the body of a young boy, that “God likes a da capo” (170). This may be a more modern-sounding repetition of the drama described by Sedgwick, but in Dinesen's re-evocation and furthering of the incident, it is the will for abstraction which takes the centre-stage.

The aim of all story-tellers is to pin down, identify and discover the true identity of the woman they all seek, Pellegrina Leone. But with every new layer of narrative, it becomes more obvious that this will be impossible, that finally she will elude them all, because the more that stories are told about her, the more identities she acquires and the more distant and obscure she becomes. Again, this is very much in line with versions of the historical Gothic in which the more attempts are made to describe or discover some unspeakable secret, the more impossible we realise its revelation will be.

Now to move on to the second aspect of the tales I want to look at. All the associations made between females and story-telling in the tales are expressed positively throughout Seven Gothic Tales in the form of certain recurrent themes—weightlessness, mutability, fakery, transience, superficiality, role-playing, and the deliberate and imaginative denial of the categories of the real and realism in favour of the dreamed and fantastic.

If the female “Gothic terrorists” of the eighteenth century described by Ellen Moers4 sought to “get to the body itself, its glands, muscles, epidermis and circulatory system, quickly arousing and quickly allaying the physiological reactions to fear” then, quite clearly, these texts do not belong to this category of sensationalist Gothic which weigh heavily on the body, both in and outside the text. As D. A. Miller has noted5 criticism has frequently regarded this kind of sensationalist fiction, as literature in which the reading body's hysterical acting out of nervousness both nullifies and naturalises the meaning implied within the narrative. The assertion has been that because such texts generate palpable effects on the body, they merely register the self-evidence of various nervous fears and emotions and thus preclude the activities of interpretation and analysis as though, he says, “in the breathless body signification expired”. He provides a critical resistance to this approach but also makes the important point that the association of nervous excitability with reading has systematically been linked with femininity. The frequent appearance of plots which thematically involve contagious female neurosis has been identified as a symptom of this. The neuroses both threaten an irreparable violation to the equilibrium of some intra-diegetic male and signal the probability that the symptoms, reverberating extra-diegetically, may be passed on to the reader. Miller highlights critical and fictional texts, then, in which body and biology are the designated vehicles for the expression of feminine meanings and are opposed to the distance, intellect, and cerebral dimensions of masculine knowledge. The point I want to make here is that, in Dinesen, the theme of weightlessness and withdrawal from the confinements of the palpable body can be read as being of particular significance, in the context of a feminist debate, because this theme distinguishes her texts from inscriptions of female spectacle and hysteria as they appear in the sensationalist Gothic of the eighteenth century and in doing so they celebrate a particular cerebral rather than biological dimension of the female.

Physically there is frequently something about these characters which defies gravity and there is a definite significance in the double meaning which is implicit in this word gravity; that is, they defy the law of nature which keeps our feet on the ground and stops us floating away but, hand in hand with this, seems to go a distinct defiance of the seriousness associated with the gravity present in the colloquialism of the phrase “keeping your feet on the ground”. Fransine, in “The Poet”, is attributed with what is described “in the technical language of the ballet as Ballon, a lightness that is not only the negation of weight but which actually seems to carry upwards and make for flight” (319). Her apparent lack of gravity is described as being at once “a play on the law of gravitation”, a “piece of celestial drollery”, and a “piece of acting”. She is acting, and she has, unlike the hysteric who is in a relationship of immediacy to her body for expression, a distance, indeed a playful distance, from the body which performs. In both she and Kasparson, the Cardinal's valet in “Deluge at Norderney”, this talent for dance is regarded as being symptomatic of some overall abstraction of existence and a lack of corporeality; both are treated delicately as though they were some untouchable sublime art object. Yet both he and Fransine eventually refuse to go on confirming the gravity (in the sense of (self-)importance) of those who continually define and denigrate them as lightweight and both wreak bloody and murderous revenges.

In “Deluge at Norderney”, amongst the sect at Hernhuten, women's bodies are described as being the registers of a kind of social centre of gravity in a world of masculine entitlement:

In those days a woman's body had one centre of gravity, and life was much simpler to her on this account than it has been later on. She might poison her relations and cheat at cards with a high hand, and yet be an honnête femme as long as she tolerated no heresies in the sphere of her speciality. Ladies of her day might themselves fix the price of their hearts and minds and of their souls, should they choose to deal with the devil; but as to their bodies, those were the women's stock and trade, and the lowering of the sacred standard price for them was thought of as disloyal competition to the guild of honnêtes femmes, and was a deadly sin.


The attempt here is to fix the value of the female in terms of the exchange value of her body, yet through the trade union of the “honnêtes femmes’ it is the women who are the brains behind the market, turning its rules on its head so that it functions, not for consumer satisfaction but, through a consensual female code of fair trading, only to glorify the women's own “stock in trade”. Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag on the other hand is relieved by the distance she attains from the market once she turns fifty and gleefully enjoys sending the whole vulgar affair up. She delights in the little bit of madness she is allowed, a madness which, we are told, took the: “curious form of a firm faith in a past of colossal licentiousness. She believed herself to have been the grand courtesan of her time, if not the great whore of the Revelation” (138). She is making herself and her value up just like the honnêtes femmes. This is real story-telling. By accepting their terms and then taking things to exaggerated extremes she makes a real comedy out of what was, to her, formerly merely a bad joke. She becomes an etiquette terrorist: “Fantastical by nature, she saw no reason for temperance, and drove up her price fantastically high. In fact, in regard to the price of her own body she became the victim of a kind of megalomania” (135). Self-deception in this story is always a means of self-defence. Try as they might to target women's centres of gravity in their bodies, to weigh them down through their bodies, taking no account of wit, men always seem to be missing the joke, which is as often as not themselves, as the women bob and smirk above their heads.

So the point I want to make here is that throughout these tales weightlessness is never a diminishing of female presence or a “making light” of women's intellectual powers as a means to dramatising the fears and fantasies of male narcissism, which have so often been the stuff of Gothic fiction. Rather it is a thematic which invests in a kind of female cerebral superiority, not exactly to men, but to the roles which are offered them by masculinist social orders, most particularly in relation to their bodies. It is a lightness which is powered above all by the energies of wit and humour of the kind so felicitously demonstrated by Miss Natog-Dag.

All this frivolity and humour may seem like a far cry from the conventions of a literary tradition which has always seemed more deeply connected to the darker impulses of terror and screams; a series of fictions in which women don't fly in the air but are entrapped in depths. Yet Sybil James6 points out that the irony and wit of the tales, the emphasis on fictionality and making things up, is an impulse which has always already been implicitly a part of the Gothic (the predictability and staginess of its trappings, its camp associations, its constant repetitions of plot conventions, its stereotypings in characterisation, its contradictory and multiple narrations). It is a feature of the modernism of the text, then, of its twentieth-century status, that this awareness can be brought more explicitly into the foreground. David Punter also describes Dinesen's “amused awareness that the Gothic to which she refers is itself a glorious fake, doomed to fail in the recapture which it intended.”7 Much like the superior female characters of her fictions, she can thus be seen as a writer knowingly superior to her genre, the gravity of which in the first place thus becomes thrown seriously into doubt.

As well as a modernist self-consciousness around narrative/narrator/fictionality, it is also worth noting here that her texts seem to fit most appropriately into the critical exigencies of German aesthetic theorists of the Romantic period. The emphasis in Schlegel and Goethe is in the need for art to include both “gravity” and “fun”. In Tieck comes the notion that, in irony, not only are the apparent oppositions of play and seriousness in a productive combination but that irony, one of Dinesen's favourite modes, essentially embodies the destruction of illusion, that is, it possesses “destructive creativity”.8

I'd like to finish off now by briefly looking at “The Poet”. As the last story in the volume, its final moments seem appropriately to crystallise several of the points I've made so far about story-telling and weightlessness. It also provides a good example of “destructive creativity”.

Until the end of the story Fransine exists between the two male characters, Anders Kube and Councillor Mathieson, only because they have been able to invest in her as a spectacle, as an object for sexual desire and, as a dancer, for entertainment. The release from this state, which by now we know to have been all an act anyway, is coolly stated here: “She had on a plain nightgown only, put on in a hurry, for she had done with her body” (362). Then again when Mathieson tries to communicate his need for help by touching her foot: “the girl who had been so sensitive to touch did not move; she had done with her body” (363). At first her body seems to deflate like a balloon, loses its “ballon”:

Her rounded bosom and hips had shrunk; there seemed to be nothing inside her white garment but a stick … her fresh and gentle doll's face was dissolved and ruined by tears; the doll had been broken; its starry eyes and rosebud mouth were no more than black holes in a white plain.


Physically she appears to have been reduced to the image of a barely skeletal frame and yet the figure which has actually disappeared is that of the woman as doll, the ideal abstraction of a woman—the Fransine created and painted by Mathieson. In fact, it seems that the more she is physically abstracted in the text, the nearer she approaches her “true nature”. After all she is only a fictional character. The last line of this description moves Fransine from the Romantic poet's clichés of womanhood, “starry eyes” and “rosebud mouth”, to “black holes on a white plain”, and in doing so dramatises the contingency of the embodiment of the fictional figure with the graphic figures on the page through which they are made up within writing—black letters on a white page. Her move into fictionality, then is simultaneous with her liberation from Mathieson. It is Mathieson who wants to eliminate the gap between his word and the reality which it describes, and through this description attempts to shape. But then he is a poet and a Romantic poet at that, whose great hero, his God in fact, is Goethe. The disappearance of rosebud mouths marks the end of his tyrannical domination and allows Fransine to make this decisive realisation: “He meant to tell her that the world was good and beautiful, but indeed, she knew better. Just because it suited him that the world should be lovely, he meant to conjure it into being so” (363). It is at precisely this point that she cracks him over the head with a large stone boulder, a violence which is accompanied by the most malicious insult she can conjure up: “You! she cried at him. You Poet!” (364). With these words the gravity and portentousness of the poetic universe is subverted and obliterated in a stroke:

The blood spurted to all sides. The body, which a second before possessed balance, a purpose, a conception of the world around it, fell together, and lay on the ground like a bundle of old clothes, at the pleasure of the law of gravitation, as it had fallen.

To the Councillor himself it was as if he had been flung, in a tremendous movement, headlong into an immeasurable abyss. It took a little time; he was thrown from one cataract to the other. And meanwhile, from all sides, like an echo in the engulfing darkness, winding and rolling in long caverns, her last word was repeated again and again.


The final text here, then, is the mortality and fallibility of the poet as well as his attempt to convert literary language into real control as order, balance and conception. Inevitably it is the law of gravitation which has the final pleasure of the text, enjoying a joke at the expense of the pretensions of the Godlike author/poet who is usurped by the spirit of story-telling which unburdens the fictional figure from the weight of poetic investment, celebrating its abstraction and mutability in its profane reduction to “a bundle of old clothes.”


  1. I. Dinesen, Seven Gothic Tales (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (1934), 1988). All page references are to this edition.

  2. E. Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 170.

  3. I. Dinesen, Last Tales (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (1957), 1986).

  4. E. Moers, Literary Women (London: Women's Press, 1978), p. 90.

  5. D. A. Miller, “Cages aux folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White”, in Speaking of Gender, Elaine Showalter (ed.) (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 187-215.

  6. S. James, “Gothic Transformations: Isak Dinesen and the Gothic”, in The Female Gothic, Juliann Fleenor (ed.) (London: Eden, 1983), p. 140.

  7. D. Punter, The Literature of Terror (London: Longman, 1989), p. 380.

  8. See Kathleen Wheeler's Introduction to German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: The Romantic Ironists and Goethe (Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 17-20.

Mark Mussari (essay date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Mussari, Mark. “L'Heure bleue: Isak Dinesen and the Ascendant Imagination.” Scandinavian Studies 73, no. 1 (spring 2001): 43-62.

[In the following essay, Mussari considers Dinesen's use of the color blue in the imagery of the stories comprising Winter's Tales.]

Ein blauer Augenblick ist nur mehr Seele. [A blue moment is purely and simply soul]

—“Sebastian im Traum: Kindheit” Georg Trakl

In several of the stories in Winter's Tales, Isak Dinesen makes painterly use of the imaginative breadth of blue.1 The color functions on two levels: a number of her characters are ultimately enveloped in the blue other-world she constructs early in the collection; and at the same time, her colorific language, calling to mind Kandinsky's assertion that the eye is “absorbed” into a circle of blue, draws the reader into her imagined landscape. Recognizing blue's power to express longing, the emotional state that pervades the collection, Dinesen deftly merges the sensual and the spiritual in her chromatic and often oneiric imagery.

Though she became a writer, Dinesen writes like a painter relying heavily on the image, whether iconic or symbolic, to express sensations or emotions.2 Describing the influence of painting on her writing, she has noted:

Kunsten har i alle sine Skikkelser betydet uendelig meget for mig. Og jeg tror, at Malerkunsten paa mit eget Sind har virket mest direkte inspirerende … den har bestandig for mig aabenbaret den virkelige Verdens sande Vesen.”

(Lasson 26)

[Art has in all its forms meant so much for me. I also believe that painting has most directly influenced my own mind … it has constantly revealed to me the true essence of the real world].

Thus, the image frequently supercedes the event in her writing. Her characters are not described making passionate love, for instance, but are placed in a blue scene that conveys ecstasy in its chromatic language. In an interview with Jørgen Sandvad while she was writing Winter's Tales, Dinesen commented on her own colorist sensitivity: “Da jeg i Paris saa Degas' Billeder, syntes jeg, at de viste mig, hvor dejligt, hvor rigt og levende sort er—det er jo ogsaa en Forkyndelse, en Aabenbaring af én Side af Livet” (22) [When I saw Degas's paintings in Paris, I thought that they showed me how wonderful, how rich and lively black is—it is certainly also a proclamation, a revelation of one side of life].

In his provocative study, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, William Gass discusses the pictorial and linguistic uses of the color and comments that “blue, the word and the condition, the color and the act, contrive to contain one another, as if the bottle of the genii were its belly, the lamp's breath the smoke of the wraith” (11). In blue, color and emotion easily exchange places as subject and object. Because blue, along with green, possesses “the greatest emotional range,” Gass contends that it is “therefore most suitable as the color of interior life” (75-6). His words call to mind the observation of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard who, in L' Air et les Songes: Essai sur l'imagination du mouvement (1943), wrote: “Le mot bleu désigne, mais il ne montre pas” (187) [“The word blue designates, but it does not render” (162)].

Dinesen's reliance on the seductive force of blue in her pictorial imagery reflects both a cultural and a personal predeliction. As a young woman, she admired Georg Brandes's writings and even at the age of nineteen sent the literary giant flowers when he was in the hospital. She was surely familiar with Brandes's apostrophe in Hovedstrømninger to “Længselen, den blaa Blomst” [Longing, that blue flower], which is based on Novalis's image of die blaue Blume in Heinrich von Ofterdingen.3 Hans Holmberg claims that “Den blå fdargen, vintersagornas fdarg har symboliska övertoner hos Karen Blixen. Dess symboliska karaktär ar av allt att döma bestämd av Georg Brandes' analys av ‘Den blaa Blomst’” (82) [The blue color, Winter's Tales's color, has symbolic overtones for Karen Blixen. This symbolic character is apparently determined by Georg Brandes's analysis of “The Blue Flower”]. Although this comparison provides a minimal understanding of Dinesen's blue imagery, it reduces her chromaticism to the purely symbolic level and envisions only one source in deriving all of Dinesen's use of blue in Winter's Tales from her reading of Brandes.

That Dinesen should make such painterly use of blue is not surprising in a broader cultural context. The color has, for centuries, held a preeminent place in Danish art. From Eckersberg's marinescapes through to the luminous hues of J. T. Lundbye's pastoral skies to Egill Jacobsen's playful blue-green masks, Danish painters have taken their colorist inspiration especially from the wide spectrum of blues in the ever-present sea.4 In Skagen, in particular, the unique atmospheric condition known as l'heure bleue prompted an entire school of impressionists, most notably P. S. Krøyer, many of whose plein-air paintings fairly shimmer with the blue haze that falls on Nordjylland in the late summer evenings.5 The Danish art critic Hans Edvard Nørregård-Nielsen has commented on the Skagen paintings' “stemningsladet rapsodi i blåt med de lyse nætters vemodige poesi i centrum” (1:285) [mood laden rhapsody in blue with the bright nights' wistful poetry at their center]. In Sommeraften ved Skagen Sønderstrand [Summer Evening on the South Beach at Skagen] (1893), one of Krøyer's most frequently reproduced works, the unearthly light emanating from the conjoined sea and sky, a solid blue mist, envelopes two moon-white figures strolling arm-in-arm, away from the viewer along the beach. As Gass has observed, “at dusk, it is the way the color sinks among us” (59). This quality in the Skagen painters' canvases depends also on the particular shade of blue they depict. Despite many inaccurate reproductions on cards and posters, seeing the paintings in person reveals that it is a slightly mauve-blue leaning more toward periwinkle.

Isak Dinesen was familiar with l'heure bleue. In September of 1936, she drove to Skagen to finish writing Out of Africa and remained there until February of 1937. She lived part of that time at Brøndum's Hotel, which was for a long time the main repository of the local painters' works. Her transcendent use of blue in Winter's Tales captures, through language, an atmosphere similar to that attained by Krøyer and the other painters of l'heure bleue. The dissolved horizon, lost in a wash of blue, serves as an important motif. The melancholy that characterizes many of the Skagen paintings is reflected in most of her tales. As her biographer Judith Thurman has pointed out: “One image in particular keeps recurring: an enveloping blueness, in which the horizon dissolves and the sea and sky seem to be the same element” (295). Dinesen's hazy blue horizons have a more prominent function than that typical of the Impressionists, though: her aim is not simply to capture effects of light at a given time. Instead, the color's emotive, expressive quality drives her blue prose.

The origin of Dinesen's attraction to this image and the sad tones of blue can also be traced to her romantic rewriting of her life in Africa. In the opening section of Out of Africa (1937), she remarks that her farm “lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet” (3) and observes that “you are struck by the feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. … Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart” (4). Unknown to the first-time reader, Dinesen is foreshadowing her flights with Finch-Hatton and painting an imaginary landscape better than any to be found elsewhere in the world.

In her use of the blue sky, Dinesen paints color spaces ripe with emotional nuance. In the manner of a fauve, she lets the blue of the sky express her feelings. With her strong visual sense, Blixen's aerial imagery depicts ecstatic states in massive, sweeping layers of color, especially blue tones. Discussing Dinesen's painterly descriptions of flying with Finch-Hatton Out of Africa, Susan R. Horton calls the scenery a “psychic” landscape:

Dinesen's prose … renders superbly what fauve painters referred to as the “color space”. … Dinesen loved flying with Denys Finch Hatton, and in her description she couples the fauve attention to color and perspective with their characteristic experimentation with new modes of rendering the visual.


Horton seems closer to understanding the inventive nature of Dinesen's chromaticism than purely symbolic interpretations.

In the chapter entitled “Wings” in Out of Africa describing how she and Finch-Hatton shot a male and female lion, Dinesen sees some vultures circling “high in the light-blue sky.” She is drawn to their flight: “My heart was as light as if I had been flying it, up there, on a string, as you fly a kite” (223). The longing in Dinesen's words is reinforced by the merging of death and flight images. Later she comments, “To Denys Finch-Hatton I owe what was, I think the greatest, the most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm: I flew with him over Africa” (229). Flying changed Dinesen's perspective on herself, on her life, and on her art. Her Breve reveal that she continued throughout her life to use the experience as a point of reference. In a letter (2 June 1934) to Gustav Mohr in which she draws an analogy to describe her elation at the American reception of Seven Gothic Tales, Dinesen writes:

det er omtrent den samme Følelse, som naar jeg gik op i Denys' Aeroplan og slap Jorden og følte, at det virkelig kunde lade sig gøre, den bar!—Man faar en ny Dristighed eller Tillid,—en slags Tillid til at være sig selv.


(It is almost the same feeling as when I went up in Denys's airplane and left the ground and felt that it really could be done, it held us up! You get a new courage or faith—a kind of faith in being yourself.)

“Dristighed” [courage] and “Tillid til at være sig selv” [faith in being yourself] serve as two of the cornerstones of Dinesen's fictive world; they are the essential traits of her most aerial characters, visitors from the blue world.

It is ironic that “The Young Man with the Carnation” appears first in the American edition of Winter's Tales, for in many ways this tale serves as the blueprint for the others. In the story within the story told to a group of seamen by the blue-eyed Charlie Despard—a young writer who unsuccessfully attempts to shirk the solipsistic demands of writing—Lady Helena spends a lifetime searching for a particular shade of blue. Langbaum suggests that Dinesen, in writing Charlie Despard's blue story, was inspired by Mallarmé's poem “L'Azur”: “it follows Mallarmé's method” (160).6 This often repeated comparison to Mallarmé limits our view of Dinesen's chromatic tendencies. It places the color in a specific paradigm while ignoring blue's expressive function in much of her writing. A sense of distance between the reader and the image attends the merely symbolic interpretations of Dinesen's chromatic imagery—as if color's sole purpose were explained once its symbolic function in a given work is determined.

In Despard's tale, Lady Helena's search begins with a forced separation from the sailor who spent nine days with her in a small boat fleeing the fiery demise of the ship on which they had been sailing. She had been accompanying her father, who, in the service of the queen, has spent a lifetime amassing ancient blue porcelain from Persia, Japan, and China. When her father discovers that a young sailor has shared a questionable amount of time alone with his daughter, he banishes the youth thus removing the object of Helena's desire. And so begins her seemingly impossible quest. Dinesen writes:

The only thing which she now wanted to do was to go, like her father before her, to collect rare blue china. … In her search, she told the people, with whom she dealt, that she was looking for a particular blue colour and would pay any price for it.


A lifetime of searching, however, only provides disappointment. Employing antipodal imagery, Helena explains to her old aunts that the world is not solid but composed entirely of water: “our planet really floats in the ether, like a soap-bubble” (19). Dinesen's ethereal blue circle conforms to certain central notions of color and design. In The Art of Color, Johannes Itten notes that “the incessantly moving circle corresponds among colors to transparent blue … the circle is spirit in eternal motion” (120). Wherever Helena travels, she says, on the opposite side of the earth another ship sails: “We two are like the reflection of one another, in the deep sea, and the ship of which I speak is always exactly beneath my own ship, upon the opposite side of the globe” (19). Helena adds that, one day, both her ship and its shadow-ship will sink; she explains, though, that “there is no up and down in the sea” (19) (in the Danish edition, Blixen adds “ingen Forskel paa højt og lavt” (46) [no difference between high and low]).

Dinesen crafts a specifically geometric image—two points separated from one another by the diameter of a sphere—and then destroys the mathematical prerequisites of that image by eradicating the diameter in a manner representing the negation of time and space. In the discussion of Bachelard's concept of spatiality in “Time and Space as the Lenses of Reading,” David J. Langston contends that “the image as ‘compressed time’ controls and resolves the outcome of … temporal flow” and that “space remains the dominant axis of perception” (403). In Helena's blue landscape, Dinesen has collapsed space to collapse time.

Denied sexual expression like many of the characters in Winter's Tales, Helena longs to unite with her male “reflection”; she can only do so by entering the timeless, spaceless blue (i.e. drowning in the sea). Her dream of descending into the blue at the same moment as her male counterpart recalls Aristophanes's myth in Plato's Symposium of the once-united sexes, now split and searching tirelessly to reunite with their lost half. This melding of romantic and aerial imagery leads the reader, again, to Dinesen's flights with Finch-Hatton, her memories of which have been transferred into wistful images of descent. In Edvard Munch's 1889 “Opptegnelser i St. Cloud,” he also expressed his reverence for passion in a blue scene:

En stærkt nøken arm—en brun kraftig nakke—op til det hvælvede bryst lægger en ung kvinde sit hove.

Hun lukker øynene og lytter med aapen bævende mund til de ord han hvisker ind i hendes lange utslåtte haar.

Jeg skulde forme det slik jeg nu saa det i den blaa dis.

Disse to i det øieblik de ikke er sig selv men kun et led av de tusener slægtsled der knytter slægter til slægter.7

(Gierløff, 72-3)

(A strong naked arm, a tanned powerful neck—a young woman rests her head on the arching chest. She closes her eyes and listens with open, quivering lips to the words he whispers into her long flowing hair. I would give form to this as I know see it, in a blue haze. These two in that moment when they are no longer themselves but only one link in a thousand links tying one generation to another generation.)

At the end of a long life, Helena receives a Chinese jar in a rare shade of blue, “the true blue,” from a merchant. In Karen Blixens livsfilosofi, Mogens Pahuus sees the jar, the color of which Helena describes as “fresh as a breeze, as deep as a deep secret, as full as I say not what” (Winter's Tales 19-20), as symbolic of “det kvindelige køn og den fysiske kærlighed” (96) [the female sex and physical love]. Helena asks that, at the moment of her death, her heart be taken and placed inside the vase: “For then everything will be as it was then. All shall be blue round me, and in the midst of the blue world my heart will be innocent and free” (20). The second “then” in her statement must surely refer to her nine days on the sea with her sailor, her banished counterpart, the object of her desire, with whom she once shared the blue world.

That Dinesen attempted to recapture those heights through her writing becomes clear in Charlie Despard's own dilemma in “The Young Man with the Carnation.” Once Charlie abandons his reverie of shirking his artistic burden and running away, he thinks: “Almighty God … as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are thy short stories higher than our short stories” (23). In his “dialogue” with the Lord, Charlie is chastened for trying to abandon his aerial responsibility. The Lord tells him:

I made the ships on their keels, and all floating things. The moon that sails in the sky, the orbs that swing in the universe, the tides, the generations, the fashions. You make me laugh, for I have given you all the world to sail and float in, and you have run aground here, in a room of the Queen's Hotel to seek a quarrel.


Finally accepting his artistic covenant with the Lord, Charlie returns to his blue hotel room and stands, high up, looking down at the people below him: “Charlie gazed down into the street, a long way under him” (26). This aerial position, that of the true artist, is reinforced in “The Heroine” when Heloïse says to Frederick: “You are a man, a writer, are you not? You are on the upward path” (88).

Charlie's own tale merges at this point with that of his creation, Lady Helena's. Just as she will not descend until the moment of her death, so must the artist remain perched on his or her aerie of responsibility. Mirroring her own life, Dinesen's fictive aerial demands come at a great price. As the Lord warns Charlie, the artist may write about women but will get only “a shilling's worth” from them in life. The artist must be “content with that” (25). Thwarted in romance, Dinesen transformed her fleeting sensual experiences with Finch-Hatton into her art. Unable to regain her personal heights, she replaced them with her writing.

Throughout Winter's Tales, the aerial state is reserved for the chosen few. Just as Charlie looks down from his hotel room window after he finally accepts his responsibility as a writer, so Simon (“The Sailor-Boy's Tale”) is also high on the mast when he saves the falcon/Sunniva and again at her house from whence he looks down to the sea. Rosa (in “Peter and Rosa”) stands high up in a window when she inspires Peter to follow his destiny to go to the sea, and Jensine (“The Pearls”) looks down from a mountain top in Norway. Conversely, the many images of descent in Winter's Tales have a similar function. Bachelard has noted that falling imagery is “une sorte de maladie de l'imagination de la montée … la nostalgie inexpiable de la hauteur” (111) [”a kind of sickness of the imagination of rising … an inexpiable nostalgia for heights” (94)].

In the Danish edition of Vinter Eventyr, the expressive use of blue first surfaces in that collection's opening story, “Skibsdrengens fortælling,” when Simon stumbles upon Nora:

Han gik videre og var kommet til Udkanten af Landsbyen, da han fik Øje paa en lille Pige i en falmet lyseblaa Kjole, som stod paa den anden Side af et Gærde og saa paa ham.


As he walked on, and got to the outskirts of the place, he saw a little girl in a blue frock, standing at the other side of a fence and looking at him.


Simon and Nora (who is thirteen) teater on the brink of adulthood; Blixen fashions an immediate association between burgeoning sexuality and the color blue, an association that occurs in a number of the other tales. Later in the story, Simon “gik … op til den Bod, han kendte, og købte der et lille, blaat Silketørklæde, der havde samme Farve som hendes Øjne” (13) [“walked up to a booth that he knew of, and bought a small blue silk handkerchief, the same colour as her eyes” (96)]. The memory of those blue eyes eventually induces Simon to murder a Russian sailor who tries to seduce the boy and keep him from finding Nora. At the end of the story, with some help from the Lapp shapeshifter Sunniva, Simon escapes punishment for the murder, but he never returns to Nora. This unresolved desire serves as another plot device Blixen constructs to enhance associations of longing and sadness with the color blue.

Images of ascent also play a thematic function in this tale. In the story's opening scene, Simon climbs the ship's mast to free the peregrine falcon (Sunniva) stuck in the nets: “He was scared as he looked down, but at the same time he felt that he had been ordered up by nobody, but that this was his own venture, and this gave him a proud, steadying sensation, as if the sea and the sky, the ship, the bird and himself were all one” (92). In this description the blending of sky and sea, an essential motif in Winter's Tales, is associated with the state of elevation. Toward the end of the tale when Sunniva has returned the favor and saved his life, Simon “got up from his stool, stood straight up before her and stared into her face. He felt as if he were swaying high up in the air, with but a small hold” (101-2). Even Sunniva's house sits “so high up that the boy could see the sea from it” (103). Dinesen uses these images of height and airiness to define those characters or experiences that defy conventionality and complacency. The child of Destiny, Simon surrenders to the paths before him, but his true place is high atop the mast. When Dinesen comments at the end that he will “live to tell the story,” she unites Simon's aerial images with the artist's lot in life. Simon, too, is on the upward path.

The overcoming of conventionality serves as the driving force in the aerial imagery of “The Pearls,” particularly in the descriptions of Norway; this mountainous landscape, with a nod to Africa, is the scene of the prudish Jensine's first experience with “passion.” During her honeymoon with her feckless husband,

she stood upon the summits, her clothes blown about her … she had lived in Denmark … and her idea of the earth was that it must spread out horizontally, flat or undulating, before her feet. But in these mountains everything seemed strangely to stand up vertically, like some great animal that rises on its hind leg. … She was higher than she had ever been, and the air went to her head like wine … she felt her old ideas of the world blown about in all directions.


These sensations are, however, followed by panic and the realization that she has been brought up in a moralistic “atmosphere of prudence and foresight” (109). By the end of her honeymoon, Jensine's relationship to the landscape (and to herself) has changed: “Only now did Jensine fully realize the beauty of the landscape around her, for, after all, in the end she had made it her ally. Up here, she reflected, the dangers of the world were obvious, ever in sight” (114). Sensuality reflected in the mountainous landscape around her has brought Jensine to new heights—into the blue—but her visceral reaction is still trepidation. Despite the experience of physical passion, she fails Bachelard's (and Dinesen's) verticality test. Using height solely to establish a safe perspective (thus, the landscape becomes her “ally”), Jensine lacks the necessary courage to live vertically.

Her ecstasy with the vertical as opposed to the horizontal—represented by Denmark's low-lying landscape—also reflects what Bachelard calls “différentielle verticale”:

Nous formulerons donc ce principe premier de l'imagination ascensionnelle: de toutes les métaphores, les métaphores de la hauteur, de l'élévation, de la profondeur, de l'abaissement, de la chute sont par excellence des métaphores axiomatiques. … Le dynamisme positif de la verticalité est si net qu'on peut énoncer cet aphorisme: qui ne monte pas tombe.


(This, then, will be my formulation of the first principle of ascensional imagination: of all metaphors, metaphors of height, elevation, depth, sinking, and the fall are the axiomatic metaphors par excellence. … The positive dynamism of verticality is so clear that we can formulate this aphorism: what does not rise, falls.


Gazing into the mirror at her own reflection in the moment of her final epiphany, Jensine “felt a strange giddiness, as if the room was sinking away around her, but not unpleasantly” (123). She has returned to a vertical position: the magic of the extra pearl enables Jensine to overcome her fear of death and to see that immortality is achieved in the story that will be passed on with the necklace. The idea that the story staves off death is another of Dinesen's favorite romantic concepts. Jensine finally embraces the blue heights because she no longer fears the abyss.

In “The Dreaming Child,” Jens, “the dreamer whose dreams come true,” is moving toward the blue land of his dreams. The child thrives only on paradox. After he is plucked, like an orchid growing out of a dunghill from his destitute surroundings in Copenhagen's slums and adopted by a wealthy couple on Bredgade, Jens withers in his new moneyed environment. Imbued with the wisdom of Mamzell Ane, a mad sewing woman who also functions as the boy's muse, Jens and his highly charged imagination need opposites to exist.8 Because paradox can find no permanent home in his foster parents' “rational, solid Copenhagen mansion” (173), his character becomes the embodiment of Blake's maxim that without contraries is no progression. With his imaginative abilities paralyzed in a well-heeled world of sated social aspirations, Jens dies. Dinesen writes: “In the end, like a small brook which falls into the ocean, Jens gave himself up to, and was absorbed in, the boundless, final unity of dream” (180). Once life fails to provide the child with the contraries necessary for his existence, Jens enters the blue world, the cosmos of his dreams, what Bachelard called “the first blue.”9

After Jens's death, Emilie and Jakob walk through the beech woods at Charlottenlund. As they stroll through a springtime “green world,” Emilie stops “to pick up from the road the shell of a small, pale-blue, bird's egg, broken in two; she tried to set it together, and kept it on the palm of her hand” (183). In a heavy-handed symbolic turn, Dinesen's broken egg alludes to Emilie's newfound role as Jens's “mother” (as she later tells Jakob, Jens was actually her “son” with Charlie). While she walks with Jakob, the sky above them is a “faint blue” (183). Echoing her own words upon learning of Denys Finch-Hatton's death in Out of Africa, Dinesen writes: “‘And now, after he has died,’ [Emilie] said, ‘I understand everything’” (186).10 The blue sky and broken egg express not only Emilie's sorrow but Dinesen's as well.

In Granze, the wizened clairovyant Wend in “The Fish,” Dinesen creates another character who functions as a visitor from the blue world. Whereas Helena longs to sink into the waves, the King, the central character in “The Fish,” stares up at one solitary star, “shining, in the pale sky of the summer night” (227). Suffering from the Dinesenian malaise of unfulfilled passion and a spiritual desire for completion, “the yearning of an adolescent” that has grown into “a bitter ache,” the King knows that only death can satiate his longing. The “profound, fresh, silent embrace of the night” (229) reaches for him. Early in the tale, the “whisper of waves,” in a Worsdworthian synesthetic turn, evokes memories of the old Wendish thrall in the King's waking hours and indicates the path the regent needs to pursue.

Granze's immediate association with the sea and the monarch's half-dream state once again unite the blue world with the atemporal subconscious. We learn quickly that the Wend is “as old as the salt sea” and that his existence is nonlinear; for Wends, “years did not count as with Christian people; they lived forever” (231). Granze's relation to the subconscious is reinforced by the King's childhood recollections of him, “when [the King] had hardly been conscious of himself or of the world. They stirred dully in the dark, and smelled of seaweed and mussels” (233). The strong sexual undercurrent emphasizes not only Granze's association with the sensual, but also the ultimate importance of physical love (the fatal affair with Lady Ingeborg) fulfilling the King's longing.11 As Holmberg has pointed out, “Kongens vej til sandhed og liv og endelig død går gennem den jordiske kærlighted” (37) [the King's path to truth and life and ultimately death goes through earthly love].

When the King finally reaches the sea, Dinesen states, paralleling her description of the night sky's seduction of him, that “the full, salt, moist breath of the sea met his face and embraced him” (238). Accompanied by his other boyhood friend, the “quick, keen” priest Sune, a representative from the Christian linear world, the King travels through the green wood to find the preternatural Wend of his childhood. Kandinsky wrote,

Nicht wie Grün—welches, wie wir später sehen werden, irdische, selbstzufriedene Ruhe ist—sondern feierliche, überirdische Vertiefung. Dies ist buchstäblich zu verstehen: auf dem Wege zu diesem “über” liegt das “irdische”, welches nicht zu vermeiden ist.


(“The way to the supernatural, lies through the natural. And we mortals passing from the earthly yellow to the heavenly blue must pass through the green”).


As in the Lady Helena's ethereal story in “The Young Man with the Carnation,” Dinesen uses the natural scenery to indicate that the reader, along with the King, is entering a dreamscape: “But to the north the sea and the sky joined without the faintest line of division, and became but the universe, unfathomable space” (238). The language captures the effect achieved by Krøyer's luminescent, horizonless blue seascapes. “Because blue contracts, retreats,” explains Gass, “it is the color of transcendence, leading us away in pursuit of the infinite” (76), which is the King's ultimate destination. “There was more than a war-song in the whispering of the waves: an endless course, infinity itself. Paradise … perhaps began where the sea and the sky met in front of him” (243). Bachelard has explained that “l'œil et l'esprit, ensemble, imaginent un ciel bleu sans résistance; ils rêvent ensemble à une matière infinie” (190-1) [”eye and mind together imagine blue sky without resistance. Together they dream of an infinite matter” (165)].

The King has entered a landscape of the soul; he stands on the shore of the same celestial blue world that Lady Helena has described. In “The Fish,” though, the emphasis switches from air (ether) to water (sea). In Karen Blixens teologi, Sven Bjerg points out the importance of the sea in this scene: “Man kunne sige, at kongen endelig finder sig selv, da det lykkes ham at forbinde indre med ydre. Han byder over havet, og havet svarer ham. Fra havet modtager han sin skæbne, som var anlagt i ham” (32) [One could say that the King finally finds himself when he succeeds in uniting inner with outer. He offers himself to the sea, and the sea answers him. From the sea he receives his destiny, that lies deep within him]. The oppositions of the King's life—self/community, solipsism/passion, Christianity/paganism, Sune/Granze—can only dissolve in the distant, “unfathomable” blue.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Granze literally rises out of the sea when the King meets him, “dragging a weight, a heavy catch of fish, after him” (239). One of the fish will, of course, contain the answer to the King's unquenchable longing: a ring, lost by the Lady Ingeborg, a ring with a blue stone that matches the color of her eyes. Sune, who has recently seen Ingeborg, immediately recognizes the ring. He had been out sailing with her when, trailing her hand in a sensuous motion in the water, she lost it. Or, Dinesen's tale posits, was it taken by the waves to serve its ultimate purpose? Sune's story inspires a blue portrait in the King's consciousness: “Before the eyes of the King's mind rose the picture of the boat in blue water and a gay breeze, with the young black priest in it, and the fair lady, in silk and gold, her white fingers playing in the ripples, and underneath them the big fish swimming in the dark-blue shadow of the keel” (246). As Aage Henriksen observes in De ubændige:

Op af havets store ubevidsthed stiger en ring og et navn på en eneste, hidtil kun kendt af kongen som en ubestemt længsel og bundet i dybet, men nu frigjort, som han selv er frigjort. … Vejen ligger nu åben frem til den seksuelle besiddelse af fru Ingeborg og videre til døden i Finderup Lade.


(Up from the sea's great unconsciousness rises a ring and the name of one, until now only known to the King as a vague longing and bound in the deep, but now released, as he has been released. … The path has now opened to the seduction of Lady Ingeborg and further to death in the barn at Finderup.)

Through the ring, the King, whose affair with Lady Ingeborg will bring about his murder, has found the solution to his “vague longing,” his entry into the blue reverie, the completion of the circle of his life.

Dinesen's associations of the color blue with both childhood imagination and blossoming sexuality are prominent in “Peter and Rosa,” the most absorbing tale in the collection. Trapped in a colorless house with a moralistic patriarch and no promise of personal fulfillment, Peter and Rosa are thwarted in their pursuit of that most Dinesenian of all goals: “the vain and dangerous task of living” (254). Borrowing from her own wintry experiences, Dinesen begins with an image of the frozen Øresund; the soft-blue sky and sea of “The Fish” are, in this tale, replaced with a “hard, inexorable sky” over a “dead landscape” (251). Her setting reflects the limiting aspect of the young characters' surroundings and upbringing, the “curb”—to borrow a term from Blake—on their sensual natures.

The thaw, hinting at the resolution of both characters' longing, has begun in the frozen nordsjællandske landscape; the falling rain and the sound of slowly breaking ice indicate the arrival of life—of sexuality—for both Peter and Rosa. Paradoxically, theirs is “a longing for the lost world of childhood” (260). Playing on this paradox, Dinesen constructs an inventive dichotomy between two “deaths” in “Peter and Rosa.” The parson's home represents that most heinous of crimes against one's nature, the sacrifice of self to conventional values and standards. Bound by the parson's stifling morality, Peter sees a flock of wild geese “trekking … north … a migration of hope and joy … his soul ascended to the sky to meet the soul of the wild birds” (251-2). Peter feels a “tremendous stream of longing” (with all concurrent sexual puns assuredly intended). He prefers another death, though,

the sailor's end … his last couch, at the bottom of the sea. … The deep-water currents would pass through his eyes, like a row of clear, green dreams; big fish, whales even, would float above him like clouds, and a shoal of small fishes might suddenly rush along, an endless streak, like the birds tonight.


The reader cannot help but to return Lady Helena's antipodal blue tale.

Rosa also suffers from the Dinesenian malaise of longing, and she too feels that the house is “dragging them the other way, into the earth” (254), that is, down. Staring out the window while sitting at her loom,13 Rosa's mind is “balancing upon a thin ridge, from which at any moment it might tumble either into ecstasy … or, on the other side, into bitter wrath against all the world” (253). Falling can be ecstatic or abysmal.

Images of descent in Winter's Tales point in many ways in the same direction as the aerial images (again, Bachelard's “nostalgie inexpiable” for heights). Thus, Peter's reverie of dying at the bottom of the sea may also be interpreted as a variant of his soul's earlier desire to fly with the wild geese. When Rosa (who feels a kinship with a trapped butterfly) stands like a ship's figure-head in the window, she wishes that she could remain “up there” (260). Ironically, she can only fulfill her wish, just as Peter can only fulfill his dream of flying with the wild geese, in a moment of descent, of drowning. Up and down are achieved simultaneously in the blue world, as are sexual fulfillment and lost childhood.

Throughout the story, Peter and Rosa are moving toward both a spiritual and a sexual unification that cannot be achieved in their morally and socially restrictive surroundings. Their tentative physical proximity to each other in the parson's house reflects this movement. Even when Peter climbs the ladder up to Rosa's room to lie in bed and to talk with her, he barely touches her while stroking her hair. Only when they enter the blue world will they be able to unite finally and completely.

Though Peter has been dreaming of abandoning the parson's books and going to sea, the full awareness of his destiny comes to him in the portrait of Rosa, up in a window, where, standing in a blue dress, she attempts to free a trapped butterfly. The image causes him to stop “dead still”:

Now Rosa, in her stockinged feet, with the skirt of her blue frock caught back by the cross-bar of the window, was so like a figure-head of a big, fine ship that for an instant he did, so to say, see his own soul face to face. Life and death, the adventures of the seafarer, destiny herself, here stood straight up in a girl's form.


In a tour de force of merging the central motifs of Winter's Tales, Dinesen connects the blue world, the sea, the female form, death, and, most importantly, destiny, in this striking description. This portrait of Peter's anima (“his own soul”) also illustrates Dinesen's use of works of art, here a statue, in her writing.

When they finally approach the sea, Rosa is filled with “supreme wonder and delight,” because everything is wet: “Things had lately been dry and hard, unyielding to the touch, irresponsive to the cry of her heart. But here all flowed and fluctuated, the whole world was fluid” (278-9). Rationally, Peter at first sees his choice to go to sea and his desire to be with Rosa, whom he believes will remain at the parsonage, as irreconcilable:

Under ordinary circumstances the two ecstasies [the sea and Rosa] would have seemed to be incompatible. But tonight all elements and forces of his being were swept together into an unsurpassed harmony. The sea had become a female deity, and Rosa herself as powerful, foamy, salt and universal as the sea.


In a state of ecstasy, opposites merge in his mind. The static, frozen image of Rosa moves Peter—and ultimately Rosa, too—toward their final goal, the fluid blue sea, “a female deity.” Shortly before they slip through the breaking ice floes, Rosa crosses her arms over her chest, like a ship's figure-head and a medieval statue.

The image also inspires Peter's own blue tale, a negative variant of Lady Helena's in “The Young Man with the Carnation.” In Peter's story, betrayal serves as the theme and also reflects Rosa's betrayal of his plans to her father prompted by her envy of his opportunity to drown “in the water of all the oceans.” After a skipper has a figure-head carved to resemble his beautiful wife, she becomes jealous of it. In Trankebar, an old king gives the seafarer two precious blue stones, which, because they match his wife's eyes, he sets into the eyes of the figure-head. His wife wants the stones for earrings, though, and so she has a glazier take the precious gems out and replace them with glass. After her husband sets sail for Portugal, his wife begins to go blind; “she could not see to thread a needle” (274), Dinesen writes, a sign of foiled destiny for the jealous wife. After the skipper's ship is wrecked, she receives a letter from the Consul of Portugal telling her that it has “gone to the bottom with all hands” (275). It ran blindly into a tall rock jutting up out of the sea. In her duplicity, however, the wife has played her role in the skipper's destiny, who now has descended into the blue world.14

The tale resonates deep in Rosa's heart. The figure-head in Peter's life, she has sealed two destinies—his and her own—by disclosing his plans to her father: “But she accepted it in full as her personal lot and portion. It was her fate and her doom; it was the end of her” (275). Dinesen reinforces the association of their moment toward the blue with their pubescence: “It was, once more, the mystic melancholy of adolescence, which will take in, at the very height of its vitality and with a grave wisdom that soon again vanishes, both past and future: time itself, in the abstract” (277-8). Like the King in “The Fish,” Peter and Rosa must pass through the green beech woods to reach the sea. Bounding over the breaking ice floes, the two are “alone with the sea and the sky” (282). In this scene, Dinesen takes her blue images one step further than in “The Fish” and replaces sea and sky with their subjective correlative:

At the same time, just as dream and reality seemed, on the floe, to have become one, so did the distinction between life and death seem to have been done away with. Dimly [Peter] guessed that this state of things would be what was meant by the word: immortality.


The romantic—in both senses of the word—character of the scene is unavoidable: The rush of blue, death, and the concurrent sexual aspect of what is happening lead Peter and Rosa “from one ecstasy to another” (283). Clinging tightly to each other (“Rosa squeezed her face into his collar-bone, and shut her eyes” [285]), like one of Aristophanes's reunited pairs, they are swept down into the blue.

Though “Sorrow-Acre” is often considered the apotheosis of Winter's Tales, its pictorial sense (like its setting) is more Old World than the other stories.15 The only use of blue in the tale (other than the opening description of the sky's “blue haze”) is a significant one, though: the mention of Anne-Marie's “blue head-cloth” as she cuts the rye field.16 The inverted Pieta that closes the story as her grieving son Goske Piil holds Anne-Marie's body in his lap reinforces the association of blue with the Madonna. It also points to Dinesen's inventive feminine twist on the main figure of sacrifice. Like the “female deity” of the sea in “Peter and Rosa,” Dinesen employs the spiritual aspect of blue to unite Anne-Marie with the Catholic female deity, Mary. She would reinforce this connection in “The Blank Page” from Last Tales, in which the Portuguese convent sits high atop the “blue mountains” and the nuns' “virgin hands” cultivate the sky-blue flax flower. Dinesen compares the flowers' airy blue color to the apron worn by “the holy virgin” to collect eggs.17

The blue light that shines on Winter's Tales reflects a romantic longing for “the lost world of childhood,” a time of fulfillment, when the imagination has complete reign over the senses. That longing, reinforced by the author's chromatic language, is then delivered to the reader. Describing the aerial quality to her dreams, Dinesen writes in Shadows on the Grass:

I move in mighty landscapes, among tremendous heights, depths and expanses and with unlimited views to all sides. The loftiness and airiness of the dream come out again in its colour scheme of rare, luminous blues and violets, and mystically transparent browns. … I fly, in dream, to any altitude, I dive into bottomless, clear, bottle-green waters. It is a weightless world.



  1. With its emphasis on color and light—and not line—Dinesen's pictorial language falls under the aegis of the “painterly,” as defined by the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945).

  2. Dinesen's imagery laden language has roots in her childhood interest and training in art, including two years at Copenhagen's Kunstskole for Kvinder (1903-5). Frans Lasson claims that Dinesen's early pictorial works “syner kun som brudstykker af et mønster, der aldrig trådte klart frem” (11) [seem like only fragments of a pattern that never clearly surfaced].

  3. In his dream within a dream, Heinrich sees a huge blue flower, a vision that fills him with a longing he cannot understand. Novalis knew Goethe, wrote about him, and must have been aware of Goethe's engagement with color theory.

  4. Commenting on Italian quattrocento painting, the literary critic J. Hillis Miller once observed that it “makes the Tuscan air visible in its invisibility” (231). This paradoxical quality surfaces, also, in Danish painting, for example in Christen Købke's mid-nineteenth-century atmospheric skyscapes of Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerød.

  5. Krøyer's nostalgic paintings take on an ironic hue when one considers that, as in the lustrous Sommeraften ved Skagen Sønderstrand, they depict a once blissful time lost to the artist's broken marriage and attacks of mental illness brought on by syphilis.

  6. Bachelard seems closer to the mark when he points out that Mallarmé's blue sky in “L'Azur” is “plus fort. … Le lecteur rêvera peut-être d'un azur moins offensif, plus tendre, moins vibrant” (189) [“too hard. … The reader will perhaps dream of a less offensive blue, one that is gentler, less vibrant” (163)]. In Mallarmé's poem, the color is oppressive rendering the poet impotent in his attempts to recreate blue's purity. The blue light of Skagen is a softer more absorbing shade closer to the one Blixen “paints” in her tales.

  7. Like the Skagen painters, Munch. too was influenced by James McNeill Whistler's hazy blue Nocturnes. During his depressed St. Cloud period, he produced such blue masterpieces as Natt (Natt i St. Cloud) [1890] with its solitary figure sitting by a window, a haunting example of blue's power to convey isolation and loneliness. As Itten has observed: “himmel dagegen stimmt passiv und erweckt allerlei unfaßbaren Sehnsucht” (130-1) [A blue sun-filled sky has an active and enlivening effect, whereas the mood of the blue moonlit sky is passive and evokes subtle nostalgias (130)].

  8. Her scissors, bequeathed to Jens, suggest her function as one of the Fates, a kind of lower-class Atropos in a bad wig.

  9. As Dinesen observed later in Shadows on the Grass, “The unruly river, which has bounced along wildly, sung out loudly and raged against her banks, will widen and calm down, will in the end fall silently into the ocean of dreams, and silently experience the supreme triumph of Unconditional Surrender” (340).

  10. After Finch-Hatton dies, Dinesen comments: “at the sound of Denys's name even, truth was revealed, and I knew and understood everything” (336).

  11. The French novelist Colette (1873-1954) used the term l'heure bleue to describe that hour of dusk when Parisian men forgathered to meet their mistresses.

  12. The German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) saw a stable route through green (as opposed to red) in the passage from yellow to blue (see Gage, 207).

  13. Another image of classical fate (cf. Mamzell Anne's scissors in “The Dreaming Child,” above, or the description in “Sorrow-Acre” of Anne-Marie's face as that of “an old woman at her spinning wheel or her knitting”).

  14. Dinesen expanded Peter's tale into “The Blue Eyes,” published in Ladies Home Journal (January, 1960, 38-9). In that version, she describes the gems as “highly precious sapphires, of a blue as clear and deep as that of the sea” (38). Dinesen also resurrects Sunniva, from “The Sailor Boy's Tale,” and even gives her a Gan-Finn father who “sold wind in bags to sailors.” Sunniva tells the sailor's wife, who goes to the ancient Lapp-witch for help with her worsening eyesight, that there are “forces that are against us” and that the young woman “must go blind.” Dinesen sets the tale in Elsinore, the destination which Peter and Rosa never actually reach.

  15. For a fine discussion of this pictorial approach, see Charlotte Engberg's “Evigt ejes kun fortællingen” in Læsninger i Dansk Litteratur 3: 1900-1940 (1997).

  16. As dusk nears the lengthening shadows turn “azure blue” and “lonely trees in the corn marked their site by narrow blue pools” (63).

  17. I am indebted to Marianne Stecher-Hansen for suggesting this connection to “The Blank Page,” and for many enlightening discussions on Isak Dinesen over the years.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. L'Air et les Songes: Essai sur l'imagination du mouvement. Paris: Corti, 1953.

———. Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement. Trans. Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1988.

Bjerg, Svend. Karen Blixens teologi. Århus: Anis, 1989.

Dinesen, Isak [Karen Blixen]. “The Blue Eyes.” Ladies Home Journal (January 1960): 38-9.

———. Karen Blixens Tegninger. Ed. Frans Lasson. Copenhagen: Forening for Boghaandværk, 1969.

———. Last Tales. New York: Random House, 1957.

———. Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. New York: Random House, 1989.

———. Karen Blixen i Danmark. Breve: 1931-62. Eds. Frans Lasson and Tom Engelbrecht. Vol. 2. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1996.

———. “To Ingeborg Dinesen.” 26 December 1923. Karen Blixen: Breve fra Afrika 1914-24. Ed. Frans Lasson. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1978.

———. Vinter Eventyr. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1966.

———. Winter's Tales. New York: Random House, 1993.

Engberg, Charlotte. “Evigt ejes kun fortællingen.” Læsninger i Dansk Litteratur 3: 1900-1940. Eds. Inger-Lise Hjordt-Vetlesen and Finn Frederik Krarup. Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag, 1997.

Gage, John. Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. Boston: Little Brown, 1993.

Gass, William. On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry. Boston: Godine, 1976.

Gierloff, Christian. Edvard Munch Selv. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 1953.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Zur Farbenlehre. Werke: Hamburger Ausgabe Vol. 13. München: DTV, 1982. 314-536.

———. The Theory of Colours. Trans. Charles Lock Eastlake. Cambridge: MIT P, 1970.

Henriksen, Aage. De ubændige: Om Ibsen-Blixen-hverdagens virkelighed-det ubevidste. Viborg: Gyldendal, 1984.

Holmberg, Hans. “Att läsa Karen Blixen.” Artes 2 (1978): 104-16.

———. Ingen skygge uden lys. Copenhagen: Reitzel, 1995.

Horton, Susan R. Difficult Women, Artful Lives: Olive Schreiner and Isak Dinesen, In and Out of Africa. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.

Itten, Johannes. Kunst der Farbe: Subjektives Erleben und Objektives Erkennen als Wege zur Kunst. Ravensburg: Maier, 1961.

———. The Art of Color. Trans. Ernst van Haagen. New York: Nostrand, 1973.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Über das Geistige in der Kunst. Bern: Benteli, 1973.

———. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Trans. M. T. H. Sadler. New York: Dover, 1977.

Langbaum, Robert. The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen's Art. New York: Random House, 1965.

Langston, David J. “Time and Space as the Lenses of Reading.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 40 (1982): 401-14.

Lasson, Frans, ed. Karen Blixens Tegninger. Herning: Forening for Boghaandværk, 1969.

Miller, J. Hillis. “The Critic as Host.” Deconstruction and Criticism. Eds. Harold Bloom, et al. New York: Seabury, 1979. 217-53.

Norregård-Nielsen, Hans Edvard. Dansk Kunst. 2 vols. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1983.

Pahuus, Mogens. Karen Blixens livsfilosofi. Aalborg: Aalborg Universitetsforlag, 1995.

Rasmussen, Inge Lise. Om at flyve og drømme. Copenhagen: Reitzel, 1994.

Stecher-Hansen, Marianne. “Both Sacred and Secretly Gay: Isak Dinesen's ‘The Blank Page.’” Pacific Coast Philology 29 (1994): 3-13.

Sandvad, Jorgen. Saaledes Talte: Interviews med danske Kunstnere. Copenhagen: Navers, 1946.

Thurman, Judith. Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.

Wivel, Ole. Karen Blixen: Et uafsluttet selvopgør. Copenhagen: Lindhardt og Ringhof, 1987.

Lynda Sexson (essay date summer 2001)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9126

SOURCE: Sexson, Lynda. “Bride's Blood and God's Laugh: Reading the Evidence of Desire on ‘The Blank Page’ of the Torah.” Religion and Literature 33, no. 2 (summer 2001): 37-57.

[In the following essay, Sexson utilizes Hebraic law to interpret Dinesen's “The Blank Page.”]

Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived.

—Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Suppose, deuteronomic law speculates, a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her. And suppose the man lies, I married the woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity (Deut. 22:13-21).1 He lies with her and then lies about her. This is the law and the lie that Isak Dinesen unravels and re-knits into her miniature narrative, “The Blank Page.” The story, more a proposal than a plot, calls out: Look where the ‘tokens of virginity’ might have been and in that place read an empty sheet. Instead of a record of bridal blood, a shock of virginal linen.

Dinesen's perhaps now classic frame story is as telescoped and vivid as the scripture she bends into parable, skims through parody, and finally sticks at paradox. To summarize the tale is to point out its absences: there is neither conflict nor resolution. Simply, an old storyteller draws a couple's attention to a decaying gallery of bridal sheets—bloodstained, gilt-framed linens. The reader is stopped, like the listeners and the viewers in the story, before one linen, framed like the others, but blank. Dinesen takes her leisure in this miniature narrative to meander through a genealogy of the storyteller, a history of the convent, a chronicle of flax, a vision of the Virgin. Then she traces a processional, before gilt frames, blood, and names, coming to rest at a space in the story. Her fairy-taling of deuteronomic law and of the deeply biblical correlation between language and sexuality abandons melodrama for a procession of spectators and a hypnotic plunge into silence directed by “an old coffee-brown, black-veiled woman.” Action is reflection: the reader anticipates blood but comes to stand before a blank bridal sheet. Reading is contamination: the reader's hands are stained, the page is blank. As Rabbi Akiba declared of scripture, it stains the hands.2 In Dinesen's story the biblical groom we might expect is silenced before he slanders. There is no name, no accuser, no figure or footstep of a groom. She works law back to myth with an aloof, Danish midrash, a story that keeps its own secret.

How shall we decipher Dinesen, how shall we read an empty text? If our rhetoric is primarily Hellenic and our myth primarily Hebraic, then she subverts Greek thought by revitalizing the Hebraic narrative. Consequently, she holds a subversive position—not contrary to—but parallel to Torah: “The Bible, however influential, has never been entirely naturalized and even today remains a resident alien, at once familiar and unfamiliar” (Hartman 3). The Bible might be called the bride. Beloved perhaps, but suspect always. Or it might be called a bloody page … or a blank page. Dinesen loves the bride. And that is her subversion, her lesson in reading.

“The Blank Page” is no mere reversal of Deuteronomy, for as much as it overturns biblical image, it turns away from biblical ideology. The rabbis, too, long before Dinesen, misread the legislative conjecture into a convoluted, divine story. Why, they wondered, did the man lie? They speculated that he must have disliked the woman—after consummation—because she was ugly. In her own creative misreading of tradition, Dinesen never suggests a groom who might hate the bride and leave the sheets untouched. But Maimonides, accusing the husband of lust, was satisfied that the man's punishment was threefold: the inferred flogging (of Deut. 22:18),3 the explicit fine of one hundred shekels to be paid to the bride's father,4 and ultimately the command that the dog-in-the-manger husband must keep the despised wife always. “He is brought to all this only because he may have found her ugly” (Maimonides 375). In Deuteronomy the bride has no voice of her own, no face. She has and is a bloody sheet. Not stooping to the pathos of an ugly bride, Dinesen offers no appearance of a despised female, no bridal blush, no homely face, no voice. No blood.

The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman's virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. In the short story, the narrator crone slyly sits “by the ancient city gate,” telling her story in the place of the absent, forgotten elders. Dinesen elevates the counterparts to the biblical patriarch and his mute wife to “a royal papa and mama who once ordered this canvas to be framed and hung up” (“BP” [“The Blank Page”] 105).5 We can wonder if the biblical wife and mother carries a profound ritual function; would she bear the taboo, polluted and polluting cloth?6 In Dinesen's story the cloth, from flax to gaze, is presented by the feminine. In Deuteronomy the patriarch makes his case: the father accuses the groom by repeating to the elders the groom's accusation against the bride, now he has made up charges against her, saying, “I did not find evidence of your daughter's virginity.” The false accuser's voice reverberates through the unwitting repetition in the mouth of the father; thus the groom speaks twice. By repeating the groom's accusation, the righteous father speaks both for and against his daughter.

Dinesen converts quarrel to silence; instead of a lawsuit, a pilgrimage. Frequently in her work a “ceremony takes place. … If one takes a closer look, it turns out that what is really conducted under this pious cover is a pagan mystery” (Henriksen 393). But an analogous claim may also be made for Torah, that it, too, conceals other sacred mysteries blanked out by the ideologies of the prophets and post-exilic priests. Then they shall spread out the cloth before the elders of the town. And we all gaze. “According to Arabic sources the parents of the bride used to preserve this garment” (von Rad 142). The bloody cloth becomes a record, that is, a text. Each bride trades her bloody sheet for a name, trades a father-name for a husband-name.7 However, rather than patronymics, beneath each framed sheet in “The Blank Page” name plates are inscribed with princess names: “Donna Christina, Donna Ines, Donna Jacintha Lenora, Donna Maria” (“BP” 103). The procession of bloody cloths epitomizes Dinesen's gift for mixing the comic and the sacred, for extrapolating the grotesque into the numinous.

The Tanakh chronicles a squeamish, jealous god fascinated by genitalia, procreation, and family squabbles, who comes to despise bloody sacrifice and instead to demand social justice. Ancient Hebraic text triangulates fathers and god and sons, leaving women outside and other. Daughters must be passed scrupulously from father to son-in-law, bound safely to their potential motherhood lest they come to signify shame. Patriarchal metaphor affixes God in the sexual drama as wronged husband, as disappointed father, or even as sacrificed son. Deviation from sexual control undermines patriarchal, and hence divine, authority. The woman's virtue is the father's honor. The elders of that town shall take the man and punish him; they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver (which they shall give to the young woman's father) because he has slandered a virgin of Israel. She shall remain his wife; he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.8 The woman's blood is the man's voice. The intercourse between the man and the woman is the discourse between father and his bride-purchased son. The rite of marriage can turn daughters into sons.

Traditional theologians have apologized for the law by congratulating the fathers on their moral progress and compassion in “giving” a woman her right to an opportunity for protection.9 A hearing. No voice, but a hearing. Is it ironic that the wrongly-accused bride would be worth twice as much to a father (one hundred shekels) as one taken by rape (fifty shekels bride price)? What, in that biblical ethic, has Dinesen so cunningly exposed?

If, however, the deuteronomic legislation continues, this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman's virginity was not found, that the page was blank, then they shall bring the woman out to the entrance of her father's house. The impure woman is a stain on the father's dooryard. Deuteronomy offers two potential stories: a guilty husband or a guilty bride, the voice of the man or the voice of the sheet. The daughter bears guilt that may return to the father's door. The daughter at the door is an emblem of the patriarch's own womb. The laws of incest [see Lev. 18] check off branches of the family tree, failing to name father and daughter. There is no divine legislation declaring a man shall not lie with his daughter.10 That page is blank. How is it that the daughter has come to her wedding without her hymen?

And the men of her town, acting out their legal, divine obligation, shall stone her to death, exchanging her life blood for her missing bridal blood. Is it for the men's absence of honor or their own lack of menstrual blood, or even the god's missing womb? As a juridical exchange, it is not an eye for an eye, but a curious, asymmetrical blood for blood, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father's house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. If the man withholds truth, he pays her father money. If the father tenders no daughter-blood, the daughter pays with her life blood. The bride is their word, their vow. The bride is their risk.11

A parallel concern is in Numbers 5:11-31, the test for the unfaithful wife. When the spirit of jealousy, as jealous as his god, visits a man, he may bring his wife before the priest. The priest, bringing the accused woman before Yahweh, dishevels her hair. Mixing holy water with the dirt from the tabernacle floor, the priest writes out the curses and pours the water over the writing. He makes her take an oath—to speak and then to drink the water of bitterness made from writing and dust. If the woman is adulterous, the magical drink enters her and causes her to discharge, the LORD makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge (Num. 5:21). Her womb is the page, either blank or stained. If the woman is innocent, she shall be clean and fertile. Perhaps Dinesen's story also reverberates with the innocent woman forced to drink the water of bitterness. If an outsider does not pollute her womb and she does not defile the sheet, nevertheless the jealous husband will not face consequences for his unfounded jealousy. The law favors those who can act on their jealousy of other men and of wombs.

The deuteronomic law frames a conjecture without a story and meta-frames Dinesen's clean sheet. The if-then construction of the law, delineating father to son-in-law exchange of the daughter, hides stories of the daughter. Isak Dinesen, with her pseudonym and with her stain, becomes yet another meta-frame for the biblical tradition itself. The daughter captures the narrative.

We, like the old rabbis, read law as tale. Dinesen explores the gap itself and plays out the counter-tale12 to the ideological pattern. Perhaps these hypothetical cases in Deuteronomy are counter-stories, near-tales whose purpose is not to heighten experience but to skin it. The purpose of the old law is to prevent the latent story's appearance. Thou shalt not. The law is a cautionary near-tale to stop the transgression before the crime, to silence a looming story. However, casuistic laws, in their method of finding principle by example, revert to the realm where no law survives but the laws of narrative—“be unwaveringly true to the story” (BP 100). Ancient Hebraic culture was not abstract; it cast ultimate questions in narrative. It cast theology in sexual metaphors: God is husband, Israel is wanton wife. Israel's page is blank.

For to great dreamers of corners and holes nothing is ever empty, the dialectics of full and empty only correspond to two geometrical non-realities.

—Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

If “The Blank Page” alludes so lightly to the deuteronomic code, spurning the law's emptied plot, even its hypothetical characters, as well as its if-then construction, then how can that distant point of Hebraic law bring Dinesen's story into focus? Dinesen's story might focus at least three poetically informed thresholds of reading. These ways of reading—of standing before her blank page—are all informed by the biblical: first, her echo of its narrative style, second, the riddle of her sacred pseudonymous name, and third, its reciprocity of sex and text.


More than in simply the subject matter of the accused bride, Dinesen's story resonates with a biblical rhetoric and psychology. Auerbach, in his famous contrast between Greek and Hebrew narrative genius, exemplifies the latter by the example of Genesis 22. The Akedah, “the Binding,” opens with startling voices in an “undetermined, dark place” that serves, not to externalize thoughts, but “on the contrary, it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed” (Auerbach 7-8). The page is blank. “Thus the journey is like a silent progress through the indeterminate land and the contingent, a holding of the breath, a process which has no present which is inserted, like a blank duration” (7). Like a blank duration. “Everything,” he says, “remains unexpressed” (9).

Auerbach reckons the silences, visual and verbal obscurities, the vertical experience (the relationship to an invisible transcendent rather than a horizontal or sensory gaze), as dramatized in the household and among the flocks. Biblical encounters are domestic and the domestic encounters are ruptured. Dinesen's story, too, applies: it is contrapuntal voice and silence, sparks of light in an obscure ground, and a myriad of interpretive implications. These applications represent reality by converging all attention upon a disturbing family detail—the bridal sheet.


To read “The Blank Page” we must read the outermost frame of the story—the name of the author. Dinesen makes her name a fiction13 and thereby Isak is key to deciphering her story.

A fundamental poetic device in biblical literature is the bestowal of names. Isaac, son of Abraham and father of Jacob, is a blank page in Genesis. Skeptics have read Isaac as a cut-and-paste transition between Abraham's promise and Jacob's treachery. However, with the trope of the bride in mind, bound or blind Isaac is like a bride, a signature between father and son, a potential sacrifice, a conduit of patriarchal blessing.

Dinesen's purloined name evokes the etymology: Isaac = laughter. Is the name a narrative transvestism? Does the attenuated daughter of Genesis masquerade as the veiled or blank page of patriarchy? Isak Dinesen's pseudonym peeks under the garments of the son to discover a daughter.14 “At the deepest layer of biblical narrative, the (unacknowledged) daughter is the structural catalyst who enables yet endangers patriarchy. By consequence, she is also the figure who problematizes the text and hence gets erased from it” (Rashkow 66). If any of the patriarchs is a woman in cultural typology it is Isaac: he is bound, he stays home, he is tricked, he is blind.15 He is a blank page.

The following brief survey of biblical stories associated with the name and naming of Isaac suggests eight resonant ways to read “The Blank Page” and its author:

1. In one of the etymological tales, God tells the newly-named centenarian that his newly-named and old wife will have a son. Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed (Gen. 17:17). Abraham, so grateful or so doubtful, falls down laughing. Isak Dinesen's stories are primarily from the fertile pen of a crone. It's an old storyteller who stops the young couple to tell her tale. Dinesen's stories are the laughter, the astonishment, of old age.

2. The oldest folk etymology concerning the name Isaac tells of the woman who does not bloody the sheet, but who laughs, who shall have pleasure: Now it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women (Gen. 18:11). Eavesdropping at the entrance of the tent, she hears the divine announcement that she shall have a son within the year. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” Yahweh asks Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” And Sarah lies, “I did not laugh.” Is a bloodless woman, Sarah, doubly comic or doubly disturbing? When blood is invisible, is it a sacred text?

3. Divine rebuke arrests the story: “Oh yes, you did laugh” (Gen. 18:15). The form of the name Isaac issues from the mouth of God as reproach as well as revelation, as covenant, as child. And the god's word has both blessing and cursing power.16

4. Sarah's delight, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6), despite all absurdity, rescripts barren old age into a pregnant text of fertility and exultation. The biblical text speaks the power of emptiness.

Print printed over print is usually crowded if not illegible. Blank space over blank space does not have this problem. It is a medium that can accept an unlimited overlap, a definition of infinity.

(Galef 97)

The fourth way in which the naming of Isaac uncovers “The Blank Page” that the reader shares with the troubled processioners before the gilt frame, is in the uncanny experience of joy against all odds.

5. But the elder brother, Ishmael, was banished for playing with Isaac (Gen. 21:8 ff.). And the words for playing (metzacheq) and Isaac (Yitzchaq) play with each other to separate the brothers in the plot. Dinesen's stories demand disjunction (as between brothers) along with conjunction (as between punning words and omens). “The old lady will remember how once, from the markings on the canvas, omens were drawn; now she will be able to compare the fulfillment to the omen, sighing a little and smiling a little” (BP 104).

6. In another play on the term, Isaac himself is permitted the pun. In a thrice-told duplicitous story, the patriarch, in order to keep himself safe, passes his wife off as his sister.17 In the version featuring Isaac, Abimelech looks out of his window, sees Isaac fondling his wife Rebekah (Gen. 26:8), and discovers the ruse. Sexual play, fondling, is another play on the name. The biblical Isaac that resonates with the “The Blank Page” and its author is the oblique and seemingly accidental disclosure of the erotic.

7. In one strand of the tradition, it is Elohim, the god himself, who names the child, “and you shall name him Isaac” (Gen. 17:19). Covenant ceremonies in ancient Israel cut animals, or maybe children, or foreskins, in order to turn blood to word. Yet the divine covenant of Genesis is fulfilled by a joke, a miracle birth from a bloodless, blank, old couple. Dinesen tells the blood story of western consciousness—of flesh into text, of miracle folding back in on the memory of sacrifice—in just a few pages and in invisible ink.

8. Lastly, the name Isaac may be a contraction of Yitshak-el = God laughs. Despite the apologists to the contrary,18Yitshak-el may be generative and erotic, erupting not so much in the text, but as text. Dinesen's subversive prose listens in on the subversions of the ancient stories, the generative laughter. Or the god's derisive, joyous, erotic, fertile laughter brings forth the son.19

This name, in conjunction with the story's uncanny sheet, folds back upon the allusion to the Virgin's apron and the city gate, and back into “the wisdom of my grandmother and of all old story-telling women” (“BP” 104). The story's fecundity is contemplation or the stopping of thought. “The Blank Page” condenses into the name Isak. Dinesen once said of life, “The strange kind of reliance on the Grace of God, which one calls humor” (Johannesson 53). Isaac, laughter, is Isak, the name that conveys at least eight storied qualities: doubt, derision, irony, miracle, play, eros, covenant, revelation. Dinesen's name and her stories laugh through sexually ambiguous permutations in the story of Isaac. As both sex and god exist as metaphorical constructs, they are words at play.


Dinesen's story confounds the distinction and tension that has been made between the biblical and romantic strains in literature. Northrop Frye drew the distinction between the biblical and the romance following from Borges, “It also occurred to him that throughout history, humankind has told two stories: the story of a lost ship sailing the Mediterranean seas in quest of a beloved isle, and the story of a god who allowed himself to be crucified on Golgotha” (400).20 Denys Finch Hatton, her lover out of Africa, taught her to read the Bible (and the Greeks) (Dinesen, Out of Africa 226). Perhaps by this encounter with Finch Hatton, she—or we—associated the biblical with the erotic, filtered through her own Scheherezade entertainments for him, subverting the Bible into romance.

The subversion of “The Blank Page” is not merely a change of focus from masculine to feminine characters, but rather to exalt mute cloth into the principal dramatic character.21 The cloth, evidence of sex, evidence of writing: blood or blankness. “The arresting analogies Dinesen draws between bloodstained sheet and printed page, between female body and male authority, make the story a critique of culture” (Greene and Kahn 6). However, we may have been too quick to make the blank page report the story we want to read: the subversion of patriarchal authority and celebration of female body. We know the story of the blank page, says the old storyteller, but “we are somewhat averse to telling it” among the uninitiated. It doesn't merely display the asymmetrical ideology of the culture, but further distends it.

The old storyteller got her tales from grandmothers, as we feminist critics like to point out; yet we are not being “eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story” if we do not note that the grandmother was once “a black-eyed dancer” who was “often embraced,” or that the storyteller's grandmother's grandmother was the “pet” of an oracular source, “an old Jewish rabbi, and the learning she received from him has been kept and passed on in our family” (“BP” 102). The word pet suggests erotic companion, daughter, or Scheherezade-like slave. The young men and old rabbi,22 lovers and fathers to those girlish grandmothers, taught them their stories and taught them that stories are love. Dinesen is not so subversive that she undermines the conventions of heterosexual love. In “The Blank Page” the old woman's opening words swiftly, subtly project a pair of lovers: “You want a tale, sweet lady and gentleman?” Unnamed, unseen, silent, blank lovers. Lovers listening. And just as swiftly she evokes a serpent teasing the first couple. What lovers desire is a tale.

Dinesen once took up troubling questions of feminism. At first she wryly conceded that she might have learned more at an international women's congress where she could have heard “enlightening lectures,” but went instead to a Shakespeare company to be with her old friend John Gielgud, and heard, “Woman, thy name is frailty” (Dinesen, Daguerrotypes 65-6). She naively explained, “When I endeavor to untangle the whole matter for myself I usually begin at the bottom, and ask, ‘Why are there two sexes?’” Then abandoning her pseudo-biological explanations for cultural ones, she turned to as nearly a suspect metaphysics to account for text (inspiration):

If I here must give my own interpretation of the expediency of the division into two sexes, I will return to my old belief in the significance of interaction, and to my conviction regarding the opulent and unlimited possibilities which arise from the fellowship and interplay of two different individuals … no reciprocity—of one except the reciprocity between God and man—has had such decisive significance as the reciprocity between man and woman. … I myself look upon inspiration as the greatest human blessing. …”


Her bloody feminine (not to be confused with feminist) stories have a guileful inspiration: the Hebraic patriarchal canon. She conflates Frye's distinction, as the tales the old storyteller learned from the young men are romance, not Bible: “tales of a red rose, two smooth lily buds, and four silky, supple, deadly intertwining snakes” (“BP” 99). Through the “a thousand and one” ways of reading back to flowers and snakes, the not-yet blood of Paradise, the “natural” blood of “defloration” (suggesting the blood of menstruation and childbirth as well) makes the framed sheets function as testaments of patriarchal order and as contracts between fathers and sons-in-law. The god of the Bible wrote the commandments with his own finger on stone—surely drawing blood; the woman writes the social part of the covenant on the sheet—drawing with blood. Dinesen the colonialist, elitist, essentialist, has denied the enterprise of feminist criticism its convenient statements about women and writing; she has denied us our own ideologically-framed scribbles even though we find the patriarchal frame distorted.23 She would seem to affirm sexual conventions of class structure, “the sisters were all noble ladies,” which would confirm and keep the patriarchy, except that the “sisters live in but one wing of the vast crumbling structure” and the sheet has no blood stain. Her story denies dualism as well as hierarchy by drying up the blood and moving to the edge, the frame. (Baroness Blixen does not, after all, bear the same meaning as her story.)

The bride is profoundly and shockingly without blood. We are struck by femininity without blood, without childbirth. It is a chaste story of nuns, the Virgin, perhaps an unconsummated bridal bed. Within the conventional forms of femininity, a woman with no bloody work to do is a shock or sanctified, a disgrace, dead, or a goddess.

This bit of whiteness, this tablecloth
suffices to anchor the house to its center.

—Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Isaac's story is threaded between his bloodthirsty father who loved his son and his god more, and Isaac's wife, Rebekah, whom Isaac loved in the shadow of his mother's tent. One more narrative, the betrothal story of Isaac and Rebekah, betrays the invisibilities of the blank page:

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things (Gen. 24). This meant to Rabbi Nehemiah that Abraham's god “did not give him a girl-child” (Neusner 307). How clever, then, of Karen Blixen to become Abraham's changeling child by means of the primary Hebraic narrative strategies of naming and of deception.

Abraham exacted a test-ament from his servant, Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the LORD, that the servant would find a wife for Abraham's son Isaac, not among the Canaanites, but from Abraham's own kin. Thus a wife is conceived by one man's hand to another man's genitals, by word, by vow, by the mark of circumcision between them. The covenant of circumcision imitates both female blood and potent language. The exclusive male bond turns phallus to bridal blood to vow, and then by touching the old wound gets back the vow, the blood, by finding a woman to fit the text of the men's begetting. The surrogate wound takes over as the primal mythic stain and the woman's blood degraded to surrogate wounding. Later, vows come to be made by a hand and a Bible, testament replacing testes, sexuality submerging into textuality. Perhaps the woman (as yet existing only as vow between the men) may not be willing, the servant argues. If not, Abraham tells the servant he would be free from the oath, only he must not take his son Isaac back there. Blood for blood, vow for vow, phallus for tongue, promise for child.

The son must stay planted on the land that was given by the god to the wanderer Abraham. So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter, taking ten camels and choice gifts to the city of Nahor, and goes to the well toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water. The servant utters a prayer and the woman silences it; Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, intruding on the request with the answer. Isaac does not, as do Jacob and Moses, draw water for his bride. Rather, she draws water for the camels, reversing the image, dumb animals narratively standing in for Isaac. Isaac's cousin Rebekah, a beauty whom no man had known, unstained, proves to be the bride by an artless magic of giving water to the servant and to his camels. The servant gives her a nose-ring and two bracelets. Rabbinic commentary asks us to read two bracelets as the two tablets of the law. In traditional hermeneutics every detail within the text, even two bracelets, refers ultimately to the text itself. In Dinesen's story, which is only about detail, the square of cloth cut from the bridal linen, is ultimately and unabashedly about story itself.

With one water-jar, Rebekah runs between well and ten thirsty animals, while the man gazed at her in silence as at the gallery of bridal sheets. The running woman is a wedding cloth, an oracle, to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful. “The old lady will remember how once, from the markings on the canvas, omens were drawn” (“BP” 104). Biblical stories are written upon generation after generation, as oracular as the stained sheets of the gallery: “Within the faded markings of the canvases people of some imagination and sensibility may read all the signs of the zodiac: the Scales, the Scorpion, the Lion, the Twins. Or they may there find pictures from their own world of ideas: a rose, a heart, a sword—or even a heart pierced though with a sword” (“BP” 103).

The servant of Abraham begins negotiation by repeating the account of his prayer that had been answered before he finished uttering it, when Rebekah had appeared with the water jar. Spare as the prose is, it depends upon doubling, echoing. “The Blank Page,” too, uses an almost biblical sense of reverberation of utterances. Rebekah goes with the servant, back to Isaac, who finally appears in the story when Rebekah asks, Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us? The servant says, It is my master. Isaac, from a distance, as a stranger, takes the patriarchal position.

The chapter moves from Abraham's thing to Sarah's tent, from testicles to womb, the generative images of the dying father and the dead mother by which the girl with the water jar turns into the beloved bride, water turns into blood. Rebekah asks the servant, Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us? Learning it is Isaac, she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. The talking, running, generous, questing and questioning young woman, upon seeing her future husband, dismounts and veils herself, becomes a veil, becomes a blank page. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent. He took Rebekah and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death.

Curiously, rabbinic tradition gives Isaac a role in producing the proofs of virginity. Worried about her journey chaperoned by an “unreliable” servant, the rabbis even suggest that the servant weighed whether or not his own daughter could be a suitable bride (Neusner 309). Women are for exchange. How can we trust that the bride was transported to Isaac untouched? The risk in Genesis is that the woman might be willful, unwilling to follow the servant back to Canaan. But the unspoken, silent risk, is the presentation of an undefiled bride; since Isaac could not travel, how can we trust a wandering womb? In a medieval midrash on the story, Abraham speaks to his son when the servant and Rebekah arrive,

See, lest he has defiled her, therefore bring the girl into the tent and examine her tactually; and if she be undefiled, behold, she is destined for thee from her mother's womb. He brought her into the tent and examined her tactually, and he showed the result to Abraham his father, and afterwards he took her to be his wife.

(Friedlander 110-11)

Isaac tore the hymen and brought the bloody text of purity to Abraham. Two cloths prepare us for the blank page: the bridal veil and the bridal sheet. The bride Rebekah covers her face, her mouth; the groom opens the other mouth and blood pours out upon the bed covering, and the father reads the sheet.

“For to be worth telling, a tale must be about how an implicit canonical script has been breached, violated, or deviated from in a manner to do violence to what Hayden White calls the ‘legitimacy’ of the canonical script” (Bruner 11). Despite the phallic violence of such literary criticism, perhaps Dinesen would agree that the text is a wronged bride. Or even that the bride herself does violence to her tradition. Every story violates its past.

Bridal stains are honored in a convent; the sheets originate from and come back to the nuns. “If the nuns in Dinesen's tale are traditional historians or literary critics in their relegation of women to a patriarchal ‘frame,’ the storytellers with their tale of the blank page allow for more revolutionary—and more open-ended—possibilities” (Greene and Kahn 27). This dichotomy, though, fails to acknowledge that the nuns are framed inside the storyteller's art, and fails to note, conversely that the nuns create and tend the gallery, including the blank page, which the old storyteller visits.

In the high blue and white, joyous and virginal mountaintop is a mythic place, “miracles took place there.” The miracle is the mundane experience of nothing more extraordinary than flax blooming, and that we lose our certitude over the difference between sky and earth: “Has the convent been lifted into heaven? Or have our good little sisters succeeded in pulling down heaven to them?” (“BP” 101), The Virgin, apron full of eggs, her blue skirt the sky, appears both transcendent and earthbound in Dinesen's writing on the growing and harvesting of flax. Dinesen gives meticulous attention to the construction of the “page” from flax in the field to linen in the frame. The spare little story deflects our attention, averts our gaze, by growing the flax, spinning, weaving, before revealing it to us—the uninitiated—pristine in its frame. Moving from the flax on the hillside to the linen cloth in the frame, while silencing the story of the bride and groom, the sexuality of the text increases. The story, then, is about weaving, about text (textile, texture). According to European folklore, flax would not thrive unless it is ceremonially sown by women, first scattering over the field ashes of a fire consecrated during matins (for the submerged goddess of dawn). And as high as the bride jumps from the table on her marriage night, so high will the flax grow.

If Dinesen so easily turns the Virgin back toward nature goddess, how is it that readers of “The Blank Page” resist seeing the Virgin as the bride of the snow-white sheet? The story is “radically subversive, the result of one woman's defiance which must have cost either her life or her honour … a mysterious but potent act of resistance” (Gubar, “Female Creativity” 259). Disgrace or divine conception? Grace or deception? If not the spotless Virgin, then consider prelapsarian Eve, when, if there had been a sheet, the text would have been spotless:

I have always thought it unfair to woman that she has never been alone in the world. … That is the grudge that women have against the Creator: she feels that she is entitled to have that epoch of paradise back for herself. … Thus these young witches got everything they wanted as in a catoptric image. … All this they got from reading—in the orthodox witches' manner—the Book of Genesis backward.

(SGT [Seven Gothic Tales] 87-88)

“As the passage reminds us, if the Genesis creation narratives be read ‘backward,’ woman precedes both man and the Lord's ordering logos” (Aiken, Engendering Narrative 85). Reading Genesis backward hangs up white sheets for Rebekah and all the women back to Eve.

Perhaps, though, the nameless bride of the blank page was pregnant, thus no blood, full of child and giving birth to thought. Perhaps the groom had not come to the carnal bed; they—and we—are waiting for the taste of the fruit of the old woman's story, and then the embrace. Perhaps the bride was old as Sarah, barren as Rebekah. Thus divine intervention was necessary to make blood flow. Perhaps the bridal bed was erotic without being sexual.24 Perhaps a jealous god or jealous husband has already tested the bride. “Or is there, indeed, a bride at all?” (Whissen 106). Witness how Susan Gubar, in the essay that helped “The Blank Page” become a prime metaphor in feminist criticism, stands before the sheet and gives voice to the characters “lost in thought” before the empty canvas, offering “any number of alternative scripts for women” (Gubar, “Female Creativity” 259). Because the space is blank, the “picture” may as well be outside the frame as in it. Boundary lines are superfluous and the patriarchy is cuckolded. After all, patriarchal chains and locks are to ensure against the eruption of the great patriarchal riddle—who is the father? All other mundane mysteries can be solved but this one, which demanded the capture of mothers in order to ensure the naming of fathers and sons. Isak Dinesen named herself.

The space we love is unwilling to remain permanently enclosed.
It deploys and appears to move elsewhere without difficulty;
into other times, and on different planes of dream and memory.

—Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

The survival of ancient Israel's risky patriarchy was dependent upon: a) a woman: strategic marriage alliances to a proper woman from within the kinship lines; b) supplanting a son: naming a usurping son and casting aside primogeniture; c) god the father, god the husband: making a story that places the transcendent god within the domestic realm of the family; d) basing reality in text: learning to read without a tree or a graven image. Thus, a) family is the primary metaphor of divine attention and connection; b) the family is a divine image, but a damaged one; and c) all Israel becomes a woman in relation to their god;25 and d) we read the universe as a broken covenant, a blank page. “Such analogies between nature and book, between physical setting and covert yet readable writing, draw notice to the operations of space as a semiotic system throughout Dinesen's art” (Yacobi 897).26

Dinesen is not merely subversive, stating a fictional opposition to the dominant culture, but is fictionally subversive by turning mere elements of culture to paradox, that is, back to myth. Texts, “written down with the rarest ink of all” are sexual, volatile, they shift, hide their parts, change their names, change our minds. Dinesen does not erase a page in the Canon but frames the blank spaces in the tradition itself. After all, the invisible god Yahweh, a sexual, petulant being, is the blank page. The ancient Near Eastern neighbors all had families of gods and impressive artistic representations of them; the Israelites had to make do with a voice and a blank presence. The story of the god and his interaction in history is played out through the implications of sexual transgressions. Its divinely granted and withheld fertility is displayed or played upon blank sheets. The patriarchal stories undercut themselves, their own ideologies.

“The storytellers themselves before it draw their veils over their faces and are dumb” (“BP” 105). In the face of the blank page, Dinesen silences her own narrative, erasing the sacred text as well as her own slender story. The blessed lady carries a Bible of all blank pages (Gubar, “Female Creativity” 262, citing H. D.). Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav wrote a book and burned it (Oachnin). Ever after, he referred to it as “The Burnt Book,” and ever since, the devout have been trying to read it. Echoing her biblical iconoclastic progenitors, Dinesen evades concept and even image, to encounter the sacred. She turns her story into a copy of the missing sacred text. It would not be a copy if it did not, after all, duplicate its absence. She has swept away the characters, all but eyes upon the sheet, creating a story that is solely its own readers caught in the erotic act of reading, loving the bride.


  1. Quotations are all from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Extended passages, quoted at intervals, are cited at the beginning of their use.

  2. Rabbi Akiba's famous statement defends The Song of Songs as canonical (that erotic book, in which the hands drip with myrrh), that it defiles the hands, is sacred. “God forbid that any man in Israel ever disputed about the Song of Songs. That it does not render the hands unclean, for all the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel: for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” Mishnah Yadayim, 3:5.

  3. The punishment has been linked to the explicit flogging in Deut. 25:1-3, in which the loser in a litigation lies down and is beaten with no more than forty lashes.

  4. Double, according to Maimonides's citing of Ex. 22:9, than if he had divorced her “in a regular manner.”

  5. All references to “The Blank Page” are abbreviated BP.

  6. It could not be the father who would bear the proofs of her innocence, as they would also be the stains of her impurity, and her impurity would fall upon him. “Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean” (Lev. 15:20). It would pollute the mother as well, who had already and long ago carried her doubly polluting daughter and birthing fluids (Lev. 12:5). However, the blood of defloration might not contaminate, as would menstrual blood.

  7. Only for the purposes of this essay, relating “The Blank Page” to the biblical, do we leap over the European traditions of securing bridal proofs. Francine du Plessix Gray, in reviewing Evelyne Lever's recently translated book on Marie-Antoinette, tells us, “… finally, the kids get into bed. The curtains of the bed are closed, then opened, then closed again, a vestige of those earlier times when witnesses were asked to certify that the act of penetration had actually taken place” (81-82). For seven years all of Europe is provided detailed reports of the “nothing” until the King, following a surgery, accomplishes the act and the queen follows with the birth of a daughter.

  8. The ancient Hittite version of a related law seems to say that if a man were to choose to let his adulterous wife and her lover live, and choose to reinstate her as his wife, the man will veil her—make of her a bride once more (see Tsevat 235-237). Although wives were not veiled, brides were. Brides, perhaps not wives or women in general, were blank pages. The “… ‘veiled bride’ is a poetic epithet of the night” (Tsevat 237).

  9. For example, the exposition in The Interpreter's Bible, still a staple in clergy libraries, claims that ancient Israel had a higher sense of morality than its neighbors; however, it does not follow its own logic as it continues, that more was expected of women, and further claims that the law shows that, “Women had nevertheless achieved certain rights, and the law reflects a measure of reverence for their dignity” (Shires and Parker 466-7).

  10. David T Stewart, who kindly read a draft of this essay, has pointed out that other key incest possibilities (male-male and brother-sister) are not spelled out, either. See the essay by Susan Rattray, “Marriage Rules, Kinship Terms and Family Structure in the Bible,” SBL 1987 Seminar Papers 26 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987) 537-544.

  11. See especially Bal's brilliant study. In discussing Samson's riddle she points out that kallah means bride, “but which is a near-homonym of kalah, which means total destruction, consumption, or annihilation—including by oblivion” (Bal 78).

  12. Dinesen, or rather Karen Blixen, in a revealing anecdote once said there is no “counter-story.” After writing a story she'd keep for years before publishing, she lent copies to friends and demanded that they respond. A friend responded with another story:

    ‘What is this supposed to be?’ Karen asked. ‘It's supposed to be a counter-story,’ her friend replied, who had in truth not really considered what it was supposed to be. ‘A counter-story is something which doesn't exist,’ she said. ‘Nor is there anything called that.’ … ‘I'll show you just what a story looks like,’ and she drew a pentagram. ‘There! There's nothing to add to this, and nothing to take away. In the same way a story is finished when it is completed’ (Hanna 76-7).

  13. This is not, of course, the only fictional name Karen Blixen adopts, but is the name under which she wrote—in English—these tales. The surname Dinesen is a reversion to her birth name, thus she chooses two patronymics.

  14. Florence C. Lewis points out that Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who was responsible for the publication of and wrote the introduction for Seven Gothic Tales, “… didn't know that Dinesen wasn't a man” (62). Lewis concludes “… that as storyteller she could be man and woman and god” (72).

  15. Given the elaborations of Talmudic musings over all words biblical, there is indeed an esoteric, hidden daughter of Abraham. Chapter 24 of Genesis opens, “And the LORD blessed Abraham in all things.” “In all things” (bakol) became a proper noun and a daughter. See Ibn Ezra's refutation by means of preposition (Strickman and Silver 233).

  16. In her youth Dinesen wrote a marionette comedy, “The Revenge of the Truth,” and kept it with her over the years. In Scene Twelve, the fool Mopsus takes a skeleton key, opens up the chest of Abraham the devious innkeeper, and putting the money into a sack, reflects:

    The difficulty about doing God's will is that I can never be certain about his character. I do what Abraham wants me to do, as far as possible, because I like to get on with him. But God knows there is no one I would better like to get on with than God himself. … If I were certain that he had absolutely no sense of humour, I would gladly sacrifice the little wit I have. But I just can't believe that. No. But is it possible that God is nothing but a humorist? Dear Lord, if Thou hast any humour, then look upon me with humour. But if Thou art in deadly earnest and Thy seriousness has no limits, oh, Thou eternal, Thou sublime One, let us, Thou and I, take that little potman, Mopsus, in Edam, whom all the rest either laugh or smile at, with quite, quite deadly seriousness, Amen.

    (Dinesen, qtd. in Hannah 195-6)

  17. Actually, Sarah is Abraham's sister, with the same father, not the same mother, defying the incest proscriptions of Lev. 18 or Deut. 27. Rebekah is Isaac's cousin.

  18. Traditional biblical readings smother the laughter of the god as a “pagan” image and therefore the antithesis of biblical divinity; further, these views characterize human laughter as antithetical to suppressed divine laughter:

    The full form is never found in the Bible. … Nevertheless, all three biblical traditions relating to the birth of Isaac … emphatically connect the name with human laughter. The explanation for all this is twofold. On the one hand, there is a deliberate dissociation from the pagan, mythological origin of yitshak-'el, which reflects the laughter and merriment of the gods, something entirely devoid of moral and historical significance. On the other hand, the laughter of God in the Bible, by contrast, invariably expresses His reaction to the ludicrous attempts of men to act independently of His will and in defiance of it (Pss. 2:4; 37:13; 59:9). The repeated laughter of humans in connection with the birth of Isaac is, in a sense, the inverse of God's laughter, for it is a questioning of divine sovereignty (cf. 18:14). The person of Isaac, therefore, represents the triumph of the power of God over the limitations of nature. No wonder he receives his name from God Himself.

    (Sarna 127)

  19. In Psalm 2:4, a coronation psalm, He who is enthroned in the heavens laughs; the repetition of the next line parallels laughter with derision: the LORD has them in derision. The following verses name his wrath and fury. Yet, in verse 7, He [the LORD] said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” Coote and Ord link verses 4 and 7, pointing to the sexuality of the divine laughter in the birth (adoption) of a royal person. “Isaac's name within a royal context means that the king is godlike, the son of god, born of god, a divine offspring” (123).

  20. It is paradigmatic, of course, for a Bible that adds a New Testament, and is not “throughout history” the stories of “humankind.”

  21. In one of her essays, Dinesen attempts to define symbolic quality by an example of “a plain matter-of-fact object, a piece of cloth,” which is really “Old Glory” (Dinesen, Daguerrotypes 1).

  22. There are many silences in a manifest story. Commentators point out that during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Dinesen helped to hide Jews on their way to Sweden and they cite her sympathetic depictions of Jews. See Stambaugh 116, n.8, and Migel 129.

  23. Aiken, in pointing out Dinesen's relationship to patriarchy in “Sorrow Acre” could as well be commenting on “The Blank Page,” saying that the structure of marriage exists to perpetuate “the patriarchal order, synecdochized in the system of patrilineage, which transfers property, authority, and identity from father to son via the exchange and mediation of women, contracting female desire and reproductive powers to phallic demand. Thus the hints of an adulterous—even—incestuous—future union between Adam [the protagonist of “Sorrow Acre”] and his aunt, by exposing the essential instability of patrilineal system, implicitly put in question the symbolic order of patriarchy as well” (Aiken, “Woman's Line” 164).

  24. “Dinesen's writing is so sensual, so erotic precisely because it is filled with whispering longing. Eroticism appears in a life that imagines absences. … Dinesen was delighted with a good friend who observed that she was so sensual, but so little sexual, for she preferred Diana to Venus” (Marranca, “Triptych” 93).

  25. Eilberg-Schwartz explores this issue, for example, finding Moses, who veils himself before the glory of God, to be like Rebekah veiling herself before Isaac (144).

  26. Yacobi suggests “… space works to organize and interpret that world into a pattern of significance along various lines …” and names them as: an agent in plot, as characterizing boundary, and its recurrence as a figure of meaning (897).

Works Cited

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———. Isak Dinesen and the Engendering Narrative. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Auerbach, Eric. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard Trask. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1953.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. New York: Orion, 1964.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking Penguin, 1998.

Bruner, Jerome. “The Narrative Construction of Reality.” Critical Inquiry 18.1 (1991): 1-21.

Coote, Robert B. and David Robert Ord. The Bible's First History. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989.

Dinesen, Isak. “The Blank Page.” Last Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1975. 99-105.

———. “On Mottoes of My Life.” Daguerreotypes and other Essays. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1979. 1-15.

———. “Oration at a Bonfire, Fourteen Years Later.” Daguerreotypes and other Essays. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979. 64-87.

———. Out of Africa. London: Putnam, 1937.

———. Seven Gothic Tales. New York: Modern Library, 1934.

du Plessix Gray, Francine. “The Child Queen: A New Biography Captures the Tragedy of Marie-Antoinette.” Rev. of Marie-Antoinette: The Last Queen of France, by Evelyne Lever. Trans. Catherine Temerson. The New Yorker 7 Aug. 2000: 81-85.

Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard. God's Phallus: And other Problems for Men and Monotheism. Boston: Beacon, 1994.

Friedlander, Gerald. Trans. and annot. Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer. (The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer the Great) According to the Text of the Manuscript belonging to Abraham Epstein of Vienna. London, 1916. New York: Sepher-Hermon, 1981.

Froula, Christine. “When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy.” Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 321-347.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1976.

Galef, David. “Notes on Blank Space.” Cimarron Review 98 (1992): 95-100.

Greene, Gayle and Coppelia Kahn. “Feminist Scholarship and the Social Construction of Woman.” Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism. Eds. Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn. London: Methuen, 1985.

Gubar, Susan. “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity.” Critical Inquiry 8.2 (1981): 243-263.

———. “Blessings in Disguise: Cross-Dressing as Re-Dressing for Female Modernists.” The Massachusetts Review 22.3 (1981): 477-508.

Hannah, Donald. “Isak Dinesen” and Karen Blixen: the Mask and the Reality. New York: Random House, 1971.

Hartman, Jeoffrey H. “The Struggle for the Text.” Midrash and Literature. Ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

Henriksen, Aage. “The Empty Space between Art and the Church.” Scandinavian Studies 57 (1985): 390-399.

Johannesson, Eric O. The World of Isak Dinesen. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1961.

Lewis, Florence C. “Isak Dinesen and Feminist Criticism.” The North American Review 264 (1979): 62-72.

Maimonides, Moses. The Guide for the Perplexed. Trans. M. Friedlander. New York: Dover, 1956.

Marranca, Bonnie. “Triptych: Isak Dinesen in Three Parts.” Performing Arts Journal 10.2 (1986): 91-106.

Migel, Parmenia. Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen. New York: Random House, 1967.

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Neusner, Jacob. Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary to the Book of Genesis. Volume II. Parashiyyot Thirty-Four through Sixty-Seven on Genesis 8:15 to 28:9. Atlanta: Scholars, 1985.

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Shires, Henry H. and Peirson Parker. Exposition. “The Book of Deuteronomy.” The Interpreter's Bible. Volume II. New York: Abingdon, 1953.

Stambaugh, Sara. The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen: A Feminist Reading. Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1988.

Strickman, H. Norman and Arthur M. Silver. Ibn Ezra's Commentary on the Pentateuch. Genesis Bereshit. New York: Menorah Publishing Company, 1988.

Tsevat, Matitiahu. “The Husband Veils a Wife (Hittite Laws, §§ 197-98).” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 27 (1975): 235-240.

von Rad, Gerhard. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966.

Whissen, Thomas R. Isak Dinesen's Aesthetics. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat, 1973.

Yacobi, Tamar. “Space as Interspace: Multiple Sign-systems in the Poetics of Isak Dinesen.” Signs of Humanity. Proceedings of the IVth International Congress, Association for Semiotic Studies, 1989. Eds. Michael Balat and Janice Deledalle-Rhodes. General ed. Gerard Deledalle. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1992. 897-902.

Rachel Trousdale (essay date summer 2002)

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SOURCE: Trousdale, Rachel. “Self-Invention in Isak Dinesen's ‘The Deluge at Norderney’.” Scandinavian Studies 74, no. 2 (summer 2002): 205-22.

[In the following essay, Trousdale argues that the embedded stories within “The Deluge at Norderney” are not only tales of self-invention, but also of re-creation.]

Isak Dinesen's “The Deluge at Norderney” (1934) is a tale about self-invention and its role in resisting the impositions of others.1 Characters who invent themselves based upon artistic models find that the results of their inventions can far exceed their models; in a startling move away from the usual sequence of events, the most successful characters become idealized versions of their flawed originals. The similar activity of rewriting the past has a still more dramatically redemptive result: it allows Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag to go to her grave a free and happy woman. In the moment of death, memory and fantasy are indistinguishable, and the characters' masquerades become true.

It is nearly impossible to summarize the plot of “The Deluge at Norderney” in a satisfactory manner. The frame narrative, if stripped of its descriptions and explanation, is too simple even to be a story: A young man, a young woman, an aristocratic old maid, and an old Cardinal are all stranded in a barn in the flooded German countryside. If the barn does not collapse by dawn, they will be rescued. They pass the night by telling stories. Early in the night, the young woman and the young man are married to each other by the Cardinal. Just before morning, the Cardinal reveals that he is not a Cardinal at all, but the Cardinal's valet; he killed his master when the flood began and has taken his place during the day's rescue work. The story ends at dawn, the barn's collapse imminent.

The magic and delight of “The Deluge at Norderney” is in the interaction of the stories-within-stories. There are two kinds of these embedded tales: the omniscient narrator's asides, in which we learn the history of Cardinal Hamilcar von Sehstedt's life and his actions (or rather, the impostor, Kasparson's, actions) on the day of the flood, and the story of the old lady, Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag; and the tales told by the refugees in the barn. There are three of these: an autobiography, told by the young man Jonathan Mærsk; a biography, told by Miss Malin about her young friend and fellow-castaway Calypso; and a fantasy, told by the Cardinal about St. Peter and Barabbas.2 Calypso tells no story; Miss Malin, whose story we already know from the narrator, almost re-tells it herself, but interrupts herself at dawn.

This progression—biography told by the omniscient narrator; autobiography; biography told by a character; fantasy; interrupted autobiography—is essential to the development of “The Deluge at Norderney.” The tale passes through five degrees of invention, in which the truths and central obsessions of the narrators' and/or main characters' lives are presented with varying layers of sympathy and differing attempts at concealment. I will argue that each embedded tale is a story not only of self-invention (which should be more or less clear from the tales themselves), but also of re-creation. The characters are telling stories which, in retrospect, become the truth. For Robert Langbaum, the purpose of the time in the barn is to give the characters the chance “to make death their ultimate triumph over conditions” (71). But in order for the characters to achieve this triumph, they must first overcome past impositions and learn to invent their own life stories, thus reclaiming and shaping their identities. Marcia Landy writes that “only through the mirroring of self through others, through art, and through language is it possible to restore the integrity of the self” (401), but it seems that in “The Deluge at Norderney,” the self can only escape from the misreadings and projections of others when it is telling its own story. When the characters in the barn tell their stories, they make their lives complete and worthwhile.3 Any lies they tell are in the search for a fundamental truth.

The tale begins with an example of misguided reinvention, the sort of thing the characters must struggle to escape. Norderney is not an obvious place for a seaside resort; it is, in fact, only made one by the romantic imagination, which “delighted in ruins, ghosts, and lunatics” (Dinesen 1). Aristocrats flock to Norderney for its wild shore and appear incongruously delicate and polished against its rougher background. “The sea had hitherto held the rôle of the devil” to the local peasantry, but the devil has been declawed: “The peasants and fishermen of Norderney themselves learned to look upon the terrible and faithless gray monster westward of them as upon some kind of maître de plaisir” (1). In an interesting (and, to the characters of the story, unconscious) superposition, the sea remains a “terrible … gray monster”; it retains its old “rôle.” The visiting aristocrats do not erase the sea's history, nor indeed eradicate the peasants' projection of a persona onto it. Instead, they re-imagine that persona making the danger both less pressing and more attractive. In doing so, they deliberately overlook a serious truth, which is that the sea is neither a monster nor a game, but a huge gray mass of water, which at the beginning of the story breaks through the dikes and drowns humans and their livestock. Whereas the sea in the first page or so of the story is described almost like a character, once the disaster strikes the sea is reduced to a thing, “driven up by the storm … [which] broke the dikes … and washed through them” (2). In the initial passive verb there is no personification: the water is acted upon, not acting, and the active verb, “washed,” is one which cannot apply to any conscious creature in this context. Nonetheless, the aristocrats remaining at Norderney continue to imagine that the sea is a person: “could their sea,” they wonder, “sing now in this voice?” (3) “Their” sea is a person, and an entertainer, but this sea, the real sea, is not “theirs” or anyone's. In the morning, there is no song, only “noise” in which “nobody could talk or even think. What the sea was doing you could not tell.” The strength and bulk of the sea defeats anthropomorphism. The aristocrats are not only unable to describe it any more, they are so deafened by it that they can no longer describe anything else either. None the less, they have not learned to fear it properly, and as the last few escape in carriages before the arrival of the main flood, “The young women pressed their faces to the window panes of their coaches, wild to catch a last glimpse of the wild scenery.” The repeated adjective has two very different meanings: whereas a “wild” woman is in a state of high excitement, the “wild scenery” feels no emotion.4 The women's wildness is entirely socially constructed, the product of a fashion for drama (and we shall see in a moment that the vagaries of fashion are central to the rest of the tale), whereas the wildness of the scenery is inherent, impersonal, unconscious. The wildness of these women holds none of the threat of the landscape.

The aristocrats' mistake lies not in imagining falsehoods—apparent falsehoods are encouraged throughout the tale—but in picking the wrong falsehoods to imagine. Making up stories about the sea is dangerous, because the sea cannot listen to them. If you convince yourself that the sea will never drown you, you are sure to drown, for you will expect the sea to behave in impossible ways. But other stories, told in the right quarters, are much more effective. If you make up a story about your child, you may convince the child of the story's truth and cause her to grow into the person you want her to be; better yet, you may make up a story from which the child cannot escape, so that whatever action she may attempt is somehow accounted for. Best of all, you may make up a story about yourself, and no one can ever contradict you or prove you wrong. Self-invention, if done correctly, transcends the deceptions and impositions of the other kinds of storytelling. While the stories about the ocean are false and dangerous, stories about the teller can be, for Dinesen, empowering or even life-saving. If you are the story you tell, then you tell the truth.

The first and most obvious instance of self-invention in “The Deluge at Norderney” is in Miss Malin's madness. Once a fanatical virgin, reacting to any form of male desire as to an attempted rape, she now—having reached menopause and come unexpectedly into a fortune, so that she is entirely removed, as Susan Hardy Aiken points out (100), from the sexual economy her previous morality was designed to serve—believes that she was “the grand courtesan of her time” (21). She takes great pleasure in remembering her imaginary transgressions, and shows in the process “a surprising knowledge” (22) of the details of debauchery, including venereal disease—a subject which makes an identification with Dinesen all too easy.

It is vitally important to emphasize that Miss Malin is in no way presented as a victim. Aiken shows how Miss Malin's fanatical virginity, while obviously inspired by the religious peculiarities of her governess and by the pressures of the patriarchal society around her, exceeds the demands of that society and ends up defeating the potential future husband it is meant to serve (98-9). Her madness, by the same token, is not caused simply by exterior forces: “to the people who knew her well, it sometimes seemed open to doubt whether she was not mad by her own choice” (16). Miss Malin has chosen to believe in an alternate past; she has used the evidence of her fortune and her memories of real people to create a convincing alternate biography for herself.5 Her slight madness saves her from worse: rather than being a frustrated old maid, she looks back on a happy life of debauchery.6 That happy life's fictionality does not diminish the satisfaction she takes in it. The strength of her imagination is in fact a continuity with her past: when young, “though not beautiful, she had the higher gift of seeming so” (18). Her madness is a further, stranger reinvention of self than her “seeming” beauty in youth was. Miss Malin's self-invention is partially successful: it does what she needs it to. It makes her happy, and harms no one. But it is not complete, for while she convinces herself, she does not convince anyone else. The rest of the world considers her mad, and she admits her own madness. Successful self-invention would have to be accepted by onlookers, as well.

The second case of flawed self-invention is Jonathan Mærsk. The story Mærsk tells in the hayloft is that of his own life. Raised in the coastal town of Assens as the child of the sea-captain Clement Mærsk and his wife, Mærsk moves to Copenhagen, where he finds great success in society as a singer. But after he loses his singing voice in an illness, he learns that he is in fact the son of the Baron Joachim Gersdorff, a Copenhagen man of fashion, and that his success as an artist has rested entirely on the public's knowledge of his father's status. Just as the aristocrats at Norderney ignore the reality of the sea in favor of the sea's imaginary “song,” so the aristocrats of Copenhagen ignore Mærsk's singing in favor of his status as son of a fashionable father. But unlike the sea, Mærsk is not in a position to overwhelm the people who falsely imagine him.

Father and son are both surprised by the revelation of Mærsk's paternity, but while Mærsk is horrified, the Baron reacts with intense, self-centered curiosity:

There is nothing that I have ever done unconsciously, without knowing well what I did. But this boy, this Jonathan, I have really made without thinking of it. He is bound to be … a true and genuine work of Joachim Gersdorff … Let him but show me what a Joachim Gersdorff is in reality, and no reward of mine shall be too great.


The Baron looks at Mærsk only as a reflection of his own “real” self: he is, in fact, looking to Mærsk to tell him the story of his life. From this moment, Mærsk's every action is subject to intense scrutiny and construal. Each attempt he makes to free himself from the Baron backfires. The Baron takes Mærsk's increasing misanthropy (for which he becomes fashionably known as Timon of Assens) and his desire for independence as absolute proof of Mærsk's paternity; at last, as reported by the friend who first introduced Mærsk to the Baron,

when the Baron heard … of your spitting at the door of his house, he became very grave. “That,” he said, “I did to my father's door, to the door of the Gersdorff Palace of St. Petersburg.” He at once sent for his lawyer, and drew up a document to acknowledge you as his son, and to leave you all his fortune. Likewise he has written to obtain for you the title of Knight of Malta, and the name of De Résurrection.


The Baron completely subsumes Mærsk's attempts at freedom. Each gesture toward independence is taken as further submission. At the last, Mærsk's very name is changed—he is no longer Jonathan Mærsk, an independent being, but De Résurrection, a copy of the Baron. By reading Mærsk's actions as his own life story, the Baron erases Mærsk's individuality. Mærsk himself is ambivalent about the Baron's interpretation of his actions. He seems half convinced—though no more than half. For the spitting at the door, which convinces the Baron that Mærsk is his “Résurrection,” may also come from another source, as Mærsk reports: “I spat at it, as my father—alas, as the skipper Clement Mærsk of Assens—had taught me to spit when I was a boy” (35). The two sources of Mærsk's expectoration are held in tension by that “alas:” either he is imitating his father the skipper, or he is imitating his father, the man of fashion, and it has become impossible for him to tell which. He has been overwhelmed by another man's story about him. Even his attempt at suicide is foiled: as he prepares to jump of a bridge, a woman recognizes him and asks to join him, riding piggyback on his despair. Mærsk cannot possibly allow this, as the woman is making even his death into something fashionable and superficial. He has come to Norderney, on the advice of his skipper-father Clement Mærsk, to find a cure in salt water. This he does indeed find, although not in the manner either he or his first father expects. When he drowns in the collapse of the barn, he drowns as himself, not as the creation or imitation of either. This is because he is first able to tell his own story, as himself; his autobiography, as told in the barn, is a form of self-invention, in which he distances himself from both fathers.

While Mærsk escapes from impositions, he does not escape from fiction. His marriage to Calypso is predicated upon a falsehood: that he followed her into the barn because he was in love with her. This story is invented by Miss Malin. It is not, however, the same kind of imposition as the other stories made up about Mærsk, as he is given the chance to reject it:

“Did you not see, Calypso,” Miss Malin addressed herself kindly to her, “how he followed you here, and how, the moment he heard that you were staying here with me, nothing in the world could induce him to go with the boat? Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”

“Is that true?” asked the girl, turning her eyes upon the boy with such an intense and frantic look as if life and death for her depended upon his answer.

“Yes, that is true,” said Jonathan. It was not in the least true. He had not even, at the time, been aware of the girl's existence. But the power of imagination of the old woman was enough to sway anybody off his feet.


Miss Malin's “imagination,” not her self-interest, is at work, and her fiction grants something valuable to all of its participants—for Mærsk and Calypso both participate in it establishing its “truth” for themselves. In this moment, Mærsk imitates Miss Malin by reinventing his remembered romances. Rather than sacrificing his individuality to someone else, he gains an imagined past—lives a little more. By agreeing with Miss Malin's suggestion, Mærsk enters into a romance; more importantly, he does for the girl precisely the opposite of what has been done to him—he gives her an opportunity to create herself through a chosen fiction. “Life and death” do depend upon Mærsk's answer: the life and death of Calypso's self-invention.

Calypso's story, told by Miss Malin—the second remove of biography, in which the invention is told about the inventee rather than by her—is also a story about impositions. Whereas Mærsk's autonomy is erased by the expectations of his father, who takes all Mærsk's actions as proof of his dependence, Calypso is more thoroughly erased by her uncle, who ignores her entirely. Calypso's uncle, Count August von Platen-Hallermund, to whom Miss Malin refers as Count Seraphina, is a parody of the self-creative artist, a mockery of a seraph. He is not an artist, but merely, in Robert Langbaum's word, an esthete, who “is not distinguished by his love of art but by his desire to organize all of life like a work of art; and he is, in his desire to see the imprint of human will and consciousness on everything, as rationalistic as the engineer” (62-3).

The Count's “rationalistic” approach to re-making his world is in fact antithetical to art: real art, as the Cardinal says, has an element of the preposterous in it. The Count's world, while silly, is entirely rationally thought out—and for this reason, among others, it is sterile, unconvincing to outsiders. He successfully creates an artificial world on his estate, but it consists entirely of poses, and is fatally self-centered:

His idea of paradise was … a long row of lovely young boys, in transparent robes of white, walking two by two, singing his poems to his music … or otherwise discussing his philosophy, or absorbed in his books upon arithmetics. The estate which he owned at Angelshorn in Mechlenburg he endeavored to turn into such a heaven, a Von Platen waxwork elysium.


This “paradise” is only “waxwork;” it has no life of its own. It is based entirely on the Count's own work: his poems, music, philosophy, arithmetic. It is intellectually sterile: the Count is entirely uninterested in adding new points of view. There is no room for growth or dialogue in the von Platen waxwork elysium. The Count's “elysium” can never be real: it is two-dimensional. The perversity of the Count's taste is established by his castle:

Count Seraphina had a great predilection for the Middle Ages. His huge castle of Angelshorn dated from that time, and he had taken pains to bring it back inside, as outside, to the times of the Crusades … The daylight was let in, between fathom-thick walls, through old stained glass, like cinnamon and blood of oxen, along the sides of the rooms, where, upon faded tapestries, unicorns were killed and the Magians and their retinue carried gold and myrrh to Bethlehem. … He never read a printed book, but had his authors of the day copied by hand in ultramarine and scarlet letters.


Everything he sees must be artificially colored: the daylight is bloodied by the old stained glass, and the “authors of the day” are anachronistically obscured by their scarlet letters. His world requires “great pains” to maintain and will not stand up to exposure to unfiltered light: the colored daylight is only “let in … along the sides of the rooms.” The “fathom-thick” walls make the castle into a sunken ship or a tomb. Moreover, the Count's castle is a false reversion to the past; the tapestries are “faded,” not new as they were in the times to which they belonged, and they show only the killing of unicorns—an assault against the ideals of courtly love which otherwise might have partially redeemed the Count's obsession with the medieval. The re-copied books show his imagination to be nothing but anachronism; for all his effort, he creates nothing new. While the Count successfully modifies his environment, he does not transform it; he only makes a strange and unpleasant mockery of both the past and the present.

Within the Count's sterile, ill-invented, all-male world is the inconvenient Calypso. At first the Count hopes that by dressing her in boy's clothing and giving her a boy's education he may raise her as a boy. Or, as Miss Malin speculates, “perhaps he even dreamed of creating a being of its own kind, an object of art which was neither boy nor girl, but a pure von Platen. There may have been times, then, when his delicate artist's blood stirred a little in his veins at the idea” (43). The Count, Miss Malin suggests, attempts to do deliberately what the Baron does inadvertently: to form another person into an exact reflection of himself. The fact that this alone excites the “delicate artist's blood” in the cold, perverse, self-centered Count implies that turning another human being into an object of art—which is to say, a created rather than a creating object—is the greatest perversity of all. And, just as importantly, the delicacy of his blood implies that he is not an artist at all; whereas Anders in Dinesen's “The Poet” is passionate enough—he falls in love, contemplates suicide, commits murder—the Count's passionless nature is inimical to art. The Count is a meddler, not an artist. The true artists of the story—Miss Malin and the Cardinal—make themselves. The artist, not the creation, is “a being of its own kind.” The self-made person is unique; the made person—the victim of a false biography—is reduced to cliché or parody.

Calypso must rescue herself from the Count's annihilation. Miss Malin's account of Calypso's position is, of course, biased by Miss Malin's own obsession: to Miss Malin, what Calypso most needs is to be looked at, for, she says, “the loveliness of woman is created in the eye of man” (45). But no man arrives to rescue Calypso, and what she does instead is look at herself and thereby conjure the necessary audience.

Calypso's initial goal in her self-invention is in fact to succumb to the Count's annihilation. In an attempt to be worthy of his notice, she decides to cut off her breasts. This physical transformation will, she thinks, allow her once again to be visible in the all-male castle. But when she wanders, hatchet in hand, at midnight, into a disused room in the castle, she realizes that there is another form of transformation available. The room, which once belonged to the Count's grandmother and which still contains her old belongings, offers an alternative. Calypso strips and faces the long mirror on the wall:

At that moment she saw in the looking-glass a big figure behind her own. It seemed to move, and she turned around. There was nobody there, but on the wall was an enormous old painting which had grown dark with age, but in which the lighter parts, illuminated by her candle, sprang out. It represented a scene out of the life of the nymphs, fauns, and satyrs, with the centaurs, playing in groves and on the flowery plains.


The picture is “nobody,” but it does what no character in the story could do: by seeming to move, it draws Calypso's attention to itself and the possibilities it suggests. Like Calypso herself, it demands an audience. The painting is a “figure” of an entire world outside of the male-only domain of Angelshorn; it is “illuminated” not by the Count's anachronistic red ink or the dyed sun but by Calypso's plain candle. As Calypso's light reveals the picture, so the picture reveals something to her. It is not realistic or even “well-painted,” but that does not matter, because “in the foreground” are “three young naked nymphs.” Calypso, raised in the strange world of the castle, in which all truths are based on a fantasy, does not “doubt that it was a true representation of beings actually existing.” Her credulity lends the painting authority, and based on that authority, she is “surprised and overwhelmed” to see that the satyrs and centaurs “were obviously concentrating their attention upon following, adoring, and embracing young girls of her own age, and of her own figure and face, that the whole thing was done in their honor and inspired by their charms” (48). The painting supplies Calypso with an implied audience. She is now able to imagine someone looking at her. With this in mind, she turns again to the mirror, and looks at herself again: she becomes, at last, her own audience, and thus a free agent. She is able to invent for herself a persona based on that of the nymphs and satyrs. While Miss Malin tells us that “she knew now that she had friends in the world,” the most important realization comes from that look in the mirror: the instant of self-recognition. While Miss Malin, the virgin/courtesan, insists upon the importance of the male gaze, Calypso has learned the trick Miss Malin practices but never articulates, which is the trick of self-invention. It is this trick which allows Calypso to escape the castle—still unseen, but liberated from invisibility—to come and find Miss Malin's house nearby. Calypso, caught in Count Seraphina's earthly realization of his fraudulent paradise, is unable to exist until she has a vision of paradise herself. Her imaginary world, taken from the old painting, is no more realistic than the Count's—but it is hers, and it is in order to seek it that she finally flees the castle.

This account of Calypso's self-invention is made more problematic by the fact that we hear it from someone else. When Miss Malin's narration reaches the point at which Calypso resolves to cut off her own breasts,

the girl, who had hitherto stared straight in front of her, turned her wild eyes toward the narrator, and began to listen with a new kind of interest, as if she herself were hearing the tale for the first time. Miss Malin had an opulent power of imagination. But still the story, correct or not, was to the heroine herself a symbol, a dressed-up image of what she had in reality gone through, and she acknowledged it by her clear deep glance at the old woman.


The story, we see, is presumably not “correct:” Miss Malin's tale of Calypso's self-invention is itself an invention, or an interpretation. But it is an “image” of “reality;” Calypso recognizes her own actions and self in the story, so that Miss Malin's “opulent” inventions around her are acceptable and even useful to her. Miss Malin has Calypso's permission to tell this story, as “acknowledged” by “her clear deep glance”: if anything, Calypso is interested to see what Miss Malin will make of her. Calypso, as Miss Malin says, “had to create herself” to escape the Count's “annihilation;” her materials are not entirely self-made, however, and she depends upon the perceptions of others—Miss Malin, the anonymous painter—to help her to her autonomy.

Calypso and Mærsk, then, are both still dependent upon other people to know who they are. The reactions of the world of fashion—whether it is looking at them too long or not looking at them at all—provides a basis for their own ideas about themselves. The case of Miss Malin and the Cardinal are different. Miss Malin is quite aware that she is “mad”; nonetheless she retains her madness, her belief in her past. The opinion of society (i.e. that her past is invented) is nothing to her.

The Cardinal/Kasparson is a more complicated case. To begin with, he is two people at once: the actor, and the murdered man the actor impersonates. Kasparson, in the role of the Cardinal, has so thoroughly taken on the Cardinal's past that it cannot be separated from his own.7 This is one way in which Kasparson remakes his life. But he goes further: once he has become the Cardinal, he goes on to re-make the Cardinal's life—past and present—as well, turning him into the man he ought to have been. Once Kasparson has killed the Cardinal and taken on his role, they are interchangeable; the names “Kasparson” and “the Cardinal” only refer to different people before the flood.

The opinions of others matter intensely to Kasparson. He wants, he says, to be “worshipped” (76) by the peasantry, his mother's people, whom he loves. But he does not depend upon their opinions—he makes them. As an actor, he is able to manipulate himself in order to manipulate the opinions of those around him: he alone among the characters in the story knows the secret of changing the world. By becoming the Cardinal—playing the role for his very life—he is able to convince everyone else not only that he is the Cardinal, but that the Cardinal is a miracle-worker: “Once or twice, when the boat, hit by heavy floating timbers, came near to capsizing, he rose and held out his hand, and as if he had a magic power of balance, the boat steadied itself” (7). Even the boats are convinced of the Cardinal's sainthood. Or rather, not sainthood—for after all, the man in the boat is an actor and a murderer—but of his magic: Kasparson's ability is magic.8 Where sainthood, which is perhaps best personified by Pellegrina Leoni's character Rosalba in Dinesen's “The Dreamers,” is a selfless dedication to another being, magic is more selfish and less sanctified: it is the physical power of imagination. When Kasparson acts the Cardinal, he acts the Cardinal as he ought to be: he acts the ideal of the Cardinal. Were the “real” Cardinal in the boat, he might very well not indulge in such theatricality, and thus accomplish less. By murdering the Cardinal and re-making him into an ideal version of himself, Kasparson re-makes the world around him, as well. Knowing that he is acting, knowing that his pose is a “false” one, he brings the heretofore untamable water into submission. The sea, which resists the unthinking impositions of the aristocrats, reacts to Kasparson's self-aware impersonation. While Kasparson's deliberate adoption of the peasants' ideal resembles Mærsk and Calypso's problematic imposed identities, Kasparson's impersonation of the Cardinal is a reinvention of the Cardinal's persona, which allows the actor to reinvent the world around him in turn, thereby fulfilling the Cardinal's own destiny.

The idea that the Cardinal might re-make the world is an old one, dating back to his brilliant (and pre-Kasparson) youth:

The Pope himself … said of him: “If, after the destruction of our present world, I were to charge one human being with the construction of a new world, the only person whom I would trust with this work would be my young Hamilcar.” Whereupon, however, he quickly crossed himself two or three times.


The Pope crosses himself not only because “my young Hamilcar” is a frightening person, but at the idea of a world “constructed” by a single human being. The idea is blasphemous; terrifying because of the attitude toward God which it draws one into. The Pope here risks reducing the sanctity of God to the magic of the dreamer. This is only possible, even in jest, because the Cardinal has, to him, an unpredictable imagination: he will not set things up in an overly simplistic, clichéd, or dull way. But as we see in Calypso and Mærsk's stories, such a construct is terrifying and inherently flawed. For no one can make up the world as it should be. Kasparson-as-the-Cardinal remarks in the hayloft that

I might, had I been given omnipotence and a free hand, have made a fine world. I might have bethought me of the trees and rivers, of the different keys in music, of friendship, and innocence; but upon my word and honor, I should not have dared to arrange these matters of love and marriage as they are, and my world should have lost sadly thereby. What an overwhelming lesson to all artists! Be not afraid of absurdity; do not shrink from the fantastic. Within a dilemma, choose the most unheard-of, the most dangerous, solution.


Choosing “the most unheard-of, the most dangerous solution” is the essence of creative art. It avoids the cliché which traps false artists like Count Seraphina, and it opens the artist to unforeseen, and thus uncontrollable, possibilities. The choice of the “dangerous solution” allows “love:” it avoids the solipsism and sterility of Count Seraphina, and it grants other characters free will. This is what Kasparson did in killing the Cardinal, and what Miss Malin did in changing her past. Each has taken the “absurd,” “fantastic” solution to his or her problem, without attempting to manipulate an audience overtly. Miss Malin does not care whether other people believe in the past she remembers; Kasparson manipulates his own identity rather than the peasants he wants to impress. He does not try to make them love him; instead, he becomes the person they already love.

The only hint that the Cardinal is acting a role comes when he sets out with the last boatload of rescuers to the resort:

As he walked down to the boat, and the people from the bath dispersed before him, some of the ladies suddenly and wildly clapped their hands. They meant no harm. Knowing heroism only from the stage, they gave it the stage's applause. But the old man whom they applauded stopped under it for a moment. He bowed his head a little, with an exquisite irony, in the manner of a hero upon the stage.


At this early stage in the story, the ladies' “wild” applause is extremely inappropriate. It reveals them for what they are: trivial, naive, the falsely-wild women who looked out at the truly-wild landscape from coach windows. They do not understand what is really at stake. For them, the whole tragedy is comprehensible only as a play—in which not only will nobody drown, but nobody will even get wet. The apology, “they meant no harm,” is needed, for otherwise they may look downright malicious, as they seem to be making games of a matter of life and death. But their ignorance nonetheless reveals something about the Cardinal. For the “irony” which, at that moment, appears simply to be an understanding of their deficiencies, turns out to be a more classical irony: the Cardinal knows, as we do not, that he is an actor, and that applause is appropriate. The difference between the role he is playing and the role they are reacting to, however, is crucial: the Cardinal, unlike the women, knows that while he is playing a role, he is playing it surrounded by reality—he knows that he can drown. Although their applause is not what he wants—he is acting for the peasants, who also know the dangers he faces—he recognizes its suitability.

Kasparson, in the barn, says that the Cardinal (and here once again they are briefly two people, as the actor considers the original of the part he is playing) would have approved of how he played his role, with one reservation:

he might have held that I overdid my rôle. I stayed in this hayloft to save the lives of those sottish peasants, who preferred the salvation of their cattle to their own. It is doubtful whether the Cardinal would ever have done that, for he was a man of excellent sense. That may be so. But a little charlatanry there must needs be in all great art, and the Cardinal himself was not free from it.


The “charlatanry” in Kasparson's “art” does not lie in his impersonation, but in his divergence from exact impersonation. He is not a charlatan until he does something which the Cardinal would not. He does this not for his own sake—after all, it will clearly lead to his death—but for the sake of the legend he wants to create: he does it to make the story perfect. Kasparson, the artist-murderer, is true not to the desires or character of his victim, but to his victim's persona. This divergence of the role from the model is, Kasparson claims, unavoidable: “there never was a great artist who was not a bit of a charlatan; nor a great king, nor a god” (58-9). The artist, king, or god is at once the director of the play—a figure of power—and obedient to the script, or to his ideal of the best version of the story.

In order for his art to be appreciated, however, Kasparson must at last reveal that he is acting. He waits to do this until the young people are asleep. In effect, only he and Miss Malin are now in the hayloft. He strips off the bandages which have disguised him and says, “I had better get rid of these … now that morning is almost here” (71). Morning brings death, and death is truth, so that still to be disguised at morning would be futile as well as artistically inappropriate. He confesses his identity to the surprised but unperturbed Miss Malin, and explains: “I am an actor, madame, as you are a Nat-og-Dag; that is, we remain so whatever else we take on, and fall back upon this one thing when the others fail us” (72). The equation of “actor” with “Nat-og-Dag” is telling. “Actor” and “aristocrat” (and it is important to distinguish Miss Malin's ancient, dying branch of aristocracy from the modern, fashionable, flighty kind represented by the applauding women) become blurred categories; each is an artist, each is a charlatan. Each has an essential, “true” identity—actor, Nat-og-Dag—around which other, secondary identities may be erected without damaging or changing the core. In Miss Malin's case, these secondary identities are her self-inventions as virgin and whore, either of which she plays in an equally grand, exaggerated manner; in Kasparson's case, they are his many careers. He has been a barber, a revolutionary, and a hostler; he has been on the run from the law. But all of these facets of his identity are secondary to the important truth that he is an actor, and “the bastard of Égalité” (73), the Duke of Orléans who changed his name and “voted for the death of the King of France.” Kasparson is the product of a union between debased nobility and risen peasantry; he is a cross between the aristocratic and peasant cultures which the story holds in such contrast. Thus while he will fit in neither world, he can blend in with either, and plays the two against each other.

It may be a flaw in the story that its supreme artist, who gains his heart's desire, only manages to do so because he is also a murderer. Miss Malin seems oddly unperturbed by Kasparson's confession, but her sense of morality is notably skewed. For Dinesen, the Cardinal's murder seems justified by the fact that his murderer plays the Cardinal's role to perfection: because the impersonation is artistically perfect, its morality is irrelevant—all the more so, apparently, since all the characters are going to end up dead by the end of the day no matter what happens.

Kasparson, in a rather surprising and perhaps dubious move, justifies his murder and impersonation of the Cardinal by saying that it is necessary to him for artistic fulfillment:

I told you: I am an actor. Shall not an actor have a rôle? If all the time the manager of the theater holds back the good rôles from us, may we not insist upon understudying the stars? The proof of our undertaking is in the success or fiasco. I have played the part well. The Cardinal would have applauded me, for he was a fine connoisseur of the art.


In this formulation, murder is diminished into a sensible career move, and impersonation of a dead man is “understudying the stars.” The “manager of the theater” is an unseen force which nudges characters into certain roles. But Kasparson sees a role for free will and individual action: he is able to “insist.” After a lifetime of secondary roles—barber, revolutionary—he is at last able to play the part he yearns for: savior. The fact that he plays it under an assumed name is irrelevant. What matters is that he gets to play it at all. In exchange he gets not only his original goal, the love of the peasants, but a kind of approval from the man he impersonates. The applause of a connoisseur, even the imaginary applause of a dead connoisseur, is worth getting—unlike that of the foolish ladies by the boats. To Kasparson, the fact that his impersonation of the Cardinal convinces the peasants justifies the murder. In exchange, they have finally given him what he wants: “Only tonight have they come around. They have seen the face of God in my face. They will tell you, after tonight, that there was a white light over the boat in which I went out with them” (76). Kasparson is right: we know from the beginning of the tale that to the peasants, the Cardinal will remain the central figure of the flood for years after his double death (murdered in his house and then drowned in the barn).9 No one by the name Kasparson achieves any credit: that name dies in the house, an unimportant drowned valet. But Kasparson, through the Cardinal, achieves his heart's desire—and he does it by living a story; he tells a story through his own actions and convinces his audience that he is telling the truth. He reinvents himself entirely, assuming the ideal version of another man's persona. In the process, he helps save the lives of peasants stranded by a flood. He is the opposite of the Baron or Count Seraphina: instead of remaking others to serve his own ideal, he makes himself into the ideal of others in order to serve them. This transformation is fatal. If the actor-Cardinal had not stayed in the barn to drown, he would have been hanged for murder, and the entire role sabotaged. Kasparson dies for his art.

It is in recognition of his ability to make his dream come true that, as dawn is breaking and the barn is on the verge of collapse, Miss Malin says to him, “Kasparson, you great actor … Bastard of Égalité, kiss me” (78). She wishes to kiss not the Cardinal, but the Cardinal's alter ego/creator, the actor. At once embracing her aristocratic ideal by kissing the older brother of the King of France and abandoning it by kissing the disreputable son of a peasant woman, Miss Malin gets the one real kiss of her life from the one man of her own nature, her fellow-inventor. Her belief in her dissipated past allows her to act, and with that kiss, she makes her belief true—“the proud old maid did not go unkissed into her grave.” Her invitation, quoting the priest who presided at the execution of Louis XVI, is “Fils de St. Louis, montez au ciel!”—a suggestion with a triple meaning, for the kiss offered as both a heavenly and an earthly sexual reward is in fact the kiss of a “death's-head by which druggists label their poison bottles,” to be taken in the last moments of Kasparson's life.

“Not by the face shall the man be known, but by the mask,” says the Cardinal/actor (75). What reveals the truths of these characters is not the selves invented for them by society, family, or chance, but the selves they invent in spite of their surroundings, or to seduce them. While Mærsk and Calypso remain to some extent dependent upon exterior circumstances, Miss Malin and Kasparson are free to shape themselves according to their own visions. Miss Malin manages to convince herself; Kasparson goes the crucial step further, and convinces everyone else, as well.

The tale ends with dawn because that is the moment of synthesis; neither night nor day, the transitional moment; the knife-edge of Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag's name. At that moment the tension between truth and falsehood, youth and age, aristocracy and peasant, and life and death all come together, focused by the kiss, the rising water, and the rising sun. Miss Malin interrupts herself as she begins to tell her own story because this is the moment the whole night has led towards: the moment when everything that should be true, is. The characters have completed themselves, and no more audience is needed.


  1. Questions of identity are never far from the surface in Dinesen's work (see Bjørnvig). But few critics have looked closely at precisely how Dinesen's characters imagine new identities for themselves in the face of identities imposed upon them.

  2. I use the term autobiography deliberately. Defined by Paul de Man as the story of a name (68) and by Georges Gusdorf as the “diagram of a destiny” (40), it exactly fits the stories the characters tell about themselves.

  3. Morten Kyndrup points out the “positive valorization” of Miss Malin's “unconcern for realities” (139) and the fact that Kasparson's “staging” of the Cardinal is “good” despite being “a lie,” but, having other concerns, does little to analyze the differences between characters' alternate realities (147).

  4. I disagree with Susan Hardy Aiken's reading of this passage in which she takes the repeated adjective to imply that the sea is a representative of women's transgressive sexual power (88). The women in the carriages are trivial and uncritical and the sea's monstrosity is in its impersonality—it has no desires at all.

  5. This is, of course, what Dinesen does in Out of Africa.

  6. Helen Stoddart points out that Miss Malin “is making herself and her value up just like the honnêtes femmes. This is real story-telling. By accepting their terms and then taking things to exaggerated extremes she makes a real comedy out of what was, to her, formerly merely a bad joke” (85-6).

  7. This is confirmed by Dinesen, who said to Aage Henrikson, “I suppose you have understood … that the two figures, the Cardinal and Kasparson, are really one and the same person” (Hannah 161), as well as by similarities between the two characters—for example, both men feel tremendous and apparently inappropriate pity for all human beings.

  8. For an interesting discussion of the role of magic (as opposed to holiness) in Dinesen's work, see Stambaugh.

  9. The fact that the peasants remember the Cardinal as the central figure of the flood is proof—if any is needed—that the barn does collapse at dawn, before the storytellers can be rescued. If Kasparson had been rescued, he would have been caught, and the legend quashed.

Works Cited

Aiken, Susan Hardy. Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1990.

Bjørnvig, Thorkild. “Who Am I? The Story of Isak Dinesen's Identity.” Scandinavian Studies 57 (1985): 363-78.

Dinesen, Isak. Seven Gothic Tales. New York: Vintage, 1972.

Gusdorf, Georges. “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography.” Trans. James Olney. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 28-48.

Hannah, Donald. “Isak Dinesen” and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality. New York: Random House, 1971.

Kyndrup, Morten. “Dinesen Versus Postmodernism: The Criticism of Modernity and the Problem of Non-simultaneousness in Relation to Isak Dinesen's Works.” Isak Dinesen and Narrativity: Reassessments for the 1990s. Ed. Gurli A. Woods. Ottowa, Canada: Carleton UP, 1994. 133-49.

Langbaum, Robert. The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen's Art. New York: Random House, 1965.

Landy, Marcia. “Anecdote as Destiny: Isak Dinesen and the Storyteller.” The Massachusetts Review 19.2 (1978): 389-406.

de Man, Paul. “Autobiography as De-Facement.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Stambaugh, Sara. The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen: A Feminist Reading. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1988.

Stoddart, Helen. “Isak Dinesen and the Fiction of Gothic Gravity.” Modern Gothic: A Reader. Ed. Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith. New York: Manchester UP, 1996. 81-8.

Frantz Leander Hansen (essay date 2003)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7062

SOURCE: Hansen, Frantz Leander. “Karen Blixen's Works.” In The Aristocratic Universe of Karen Blixen: Destiny and the Denial of Fate, translated by Gaye Kynoch, pp. 20-38. Brighton, England: Sussex Academic Press, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Hansen provides a thematic and stylistic overview of several of Dinesen's stories.]



Shortly after finishing Out of Africa, Karen Blixen began writing Winter's Tales, which was published in 1942. The title is taken from Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale (1611), but undoubtedly also refers to the wintry conditions in Denmark during World War II. Of all Karen Blixen's books, Winter's Tales is the one that is most concerned with Danish subjects.

Thus the tale “Sorrow-Acre” is based on an old Danish legend of the same name and takes place on a country estate in Denmark around the year 1780. With his modern, liberal and humane ideas, the young man Adam is faced with his uncle, the lord of the manor, who upholds the old, aristocratic ideals. Adam's defence of the Nordic gods and the old lord's defence of the Greek gods illustrates the contrast between them. Adam asserts that the Nordic gods possessed the human virtues; they were righteous, trustworthy and benevolent, whereas the Greek gods were mean, capricious and treacherous. From the old lord's point of view, the Nordic gods were able to behave as they did because it was left to the Jotuns—darker powers—to be treacherous, whereas the Greek gods' power was monistic and therefore more arduous, but superior: they did not merely exercise virtue, but also took responsibility for the dark side of life, which nevertheless made them all-powerful, with the whole universe at their disposal. The old lord's point of view, to which he conforms in his exercise of power, is in complete accordance with the central concept in Karen Blixen's works: the unity of the divine and the demonic.

Adam uses the negatively-charged word ‘capricious’, but in a positive assessment of ‘Greek’ power it would be called ‘unpredictable’, which in Karen Blixen's concept is another word for the demonic. As part of life pure and simple, the unpredictable element has to be a component of genuine discharge of power; for instance, Karen Blixen says that the ‘native’ could not respect a ruler who did not have this trait: “Amongst the qualities that he will be looking for in a master … or in God, imagination, I believe, comes high up in the list. It may be on the strength of such a taste, that the Caliph Haroun al Raschid maintains, to the hearts of Africa and Arabia, his position as an ideal ruler; with him nobody knew what to expect next, and you did not know where you had him.”1 Haroun al Raschid readily acted incognito, and among the names he used was Albondocani, which Karen Blixen used as the title of a planned novel!

Similarly, Adam's charge of ‘meanness’ is converted into the Greek gods' management of life's demonically hard, but inevitable, reality. It also seems cruel when the old lord ironically discourses on human righteousness and benevolence. But, in Karen Blixen's concept of power, the ‘inhuman’ is to be understood as the general and impersonal, which must be in control; thus power is based on the eternal values. If a ruler allows himself to be moved by righteousness and benevolence, and thereby individual considerations, he is pulled down to the human plane where he does not belong. There are many instances in Karen Blixen's works where it is emphasised that, in order to preserve his overall perspective and his impersonal power, a ruler must separate himself from those he rules over. This is summed up in “The Deluge at Norderney”: there should be no “moral attitude” in a god or a ruler, on the contrary it is liberating if they do not “give a pin for our commandments”.2 This is a forceful assertion that authority should not restrict, but, without prejudice, keep the endless opportunities of life open—which will not be the case if one rules from an ethos contrived by people and typical of a specific era.

Matters come to a head between Adam and his uncle when the old lord sets the peasant woman and widow, Anne-Marie, to mow an entire rye-field on her own between sunrise and sunset; by so doing she can save her son, Goske, from being brought before the district judge to face the charge of arson—which would result in the loss of her son. Adam considers his uncle's conduct to be despotic; to the old lord it is a completely natural course of action. Anne-Marie finishes her work the very second before the sun goes down, and as she sinks to her knees, dying from exhaustion, the old lord gives Goske leave to tell his mother that he is free.

This would seem to be a story about brutal, despotic exercise of power, but Adam is only in the right as long as we stay on the surface. In the same way, it is a case of surface interpretation when—as in the tendency represented by the writer Aage Henriksen—the old lord's conduct in relation to Anne-Marie is solely construed as tyrannical “abuse of power”.3 To Karen Blixen, this is of course a matter of historical recording of the aristocracy's struggle to preserve its authority at a time when bourgeois democracy and concepts of the rights of the individual surfaced. But, notwithstanding that in “Sorrow-Acre” a sigh is heaved in the face of a world being taken over by bourgeois attitudes, on a deeper level the tale moves away from the historical interpretation and becomes a depiction of attitudes to life. Criticism of the lord of the manor fades, his seemingly despotic conduct becomes a symbolic representation of an aristocratic attitude to life, shunning time, place—and rank. This picture also admits the bond between the old lord and Anne-Marie, who are indeed only segregated on the surface. The destinies of Anne-Marie and the old lord augment one another, and eventually Adam becomes part of the alliance.

The lord of the manor has married a very young girl who had been intended as the bride for his son, who died before the wedding could take place; the old lord would therefore ensure the continuation of his lineage. The connection between the lord of the manor and Anne-Marie is the simple fact that Goske was the only person the old lord's son ever liked when he was a child. They were playmates, as is also said of Adam and the old lord's son; it is thus probable that this bond also exists between Adam and Goske.

The uncle's marriage seemingly eliminates Adam from inheriting the estate. But various circumstances make it clear to Adam that he nevertheless has a role in the perpetuation of the family line. At the beginning of the tale he delights in his uncle's garden, which “is as fresh as the garden of Eden … it looked as if here nothing had changed, but all was what it used to be”.4 The country estate is rooted in eternal values, but there is also cause for the old lord to enjoin Adam to eat freely from the trees in Paradise, by which he holds out the prospect of an Eve. The subsequent description of the young wife makes it clear that the marriage has not borne fruit in the form of the anticipated heir. And having spent some time observing Anne-Marie's struggle in the rye-field to give new life to her son, Adam suddenly understands the connection, abandons his dispute with his uncle and goes to his aunt in the manor house—there to take his uncle's place and put new life into the lineage. Adam's conquest is not an abuse of his aunt and a rebellion against his uncle, as Aage Henriksen suggests;5 on the contrary, it happens in complete accordance with their wishes.

Adam's father died young, and his uncle took over the father's role, thus enabling Adam to fulfil the ‘filial’ duty of perpetuating the family line. Furthermore, a gypsy-woman had read his hand and foretold that his son would succeed to the estate. Adam's initial detachment from the lord of the manor's milieu is not only for noble-minded democratic reasons, but more because in England he had “met with greater wealth and magnificence”,6 and a love affair with an English lady of such high rank that she would think his uncle's estate a mere toy-farm makes him look down on his uncle. Adam's conversion therefore also involves his acknowledgement of egoistic motives and the particular distinction of the impersonal aristocratic perspective. But this perspective has always held sway over him: at the very outset he is attracted to the idea of giving up “individual wealth and happiness to serve the greater ideals”.7 Adam's denunciation of his uncle is not least a manifestation of his desire to follow the current of the times: bourgeois ideology and therefore also personal advantage. That Adam makes his aunt pregnant, because he nevertheless identifies with his uncle's perspective, and not because he is taking revenge on a tyrant by cuckolding him, is made plain by his reflections towards the end of the tale. He has just shown his understanding of Anne-Marie's and therefore his uncle's struggle by breaking “off a few ears of rye”8 himself, when in his thoughts he sees “the ways of life … as a twined and tangled design. … Life and death, happiness and woe, the past and the present, were interlaced within the pattern … out of the contrasting elements concord arose … So might now, to the woman in the rye-field, her ordeal be a triumphant procession … the unity of things … had been disclosed to him today … Anne-Marie and he were both in the hands of destiny …”.9 This is unambiguously ‘Greek’ and ‘aristocratic’, sanctioning his uncle's conduct in relation to Anne-Marie.

Events in the rye-field and the manor serve a common purpose: Anne-Marie's and the lord's efforts are united in concern to perpetuate the family line. The old lord has made it possible for Anne-Marie to save Goske, and Anne-Marie's feat secures the lord an heir, as it is her endeavour that motivates Adam. What is said of Anne-Marie—that her son means life itself to her—also applies to the lord of the manor. Whatever the characters in the tale might harbour of personal feelings for one another, or for looking after their own skin, is subordinate to the family lineage, to the overall picture. This is aristocratic conduct, displayed not only by the lord, his wife and, eventually, Adam, but also by Anne-Marie and Goske. Similarly, Goske selflessly hazards his life for one he loves by refusing to inform against a married woman he was with at the time of the arson.

The aristocratic becomes an attitude to life for both high and low. Anne-Marie's action is aristocratic. She sets aside considerations of her own life in order to give life to her son (the family line), and it is said that she acts without fear and would not stop even if asked to—that would be a violation of her honour. Anne-Marie would react like “the true fighting bull” in “The Deluge at Norderney”, who in anger would attack “the master of ceremonies” if “out of compassion” orders should be given to abandon the bullfight. The bull will not be prevented from being “known for many years as that black bull which put up such a fine fight”.10 Like Anne-Marie, it gets its memorial; it is the feat that counts. But the old lord has given Anne-Marie his word, and consequently there is no risk that her family line will not be perpetuated. The word—and that means the family name too—counts for more than a human life.11

The inviolable coupling of life and death is elegantly illustrated when Goske and Anne-Marie embrace one another at the end of the tale. Anne-Marie's suffering and death in the rye-field gives life to the son, which is precisely what Adam and his aunt are engaged in up at the manor house. At the very moment of Anne-Marie's death, the son lives, in the rye-field and on the manor. Karen Blixen is here portraying the eternal life-cycle. The reference to “the grand, ceremonial manner in which the old lord would state the common happenings of existence”12 (in the Danish version it is referred to as “God's master of ceremonies”, which is more clear-cut and precise) is only a surface critique; fundamentally he is being proclaimed as the agent of the eternal, joyful and remorseless cycle that constitutes life.

Morten Henriksen's screen adaptation of “Sorrow-Acre” and Gabriel Axel's of “Babette's Feast”, both from 1987, are first-class examples of filmed versions of Karen Blixen's tales.

In “The Pearls”, set around 1863, the aristocratic is directly confronted with the bourgeois. Jensine grows up in a bourgeois environment, with security and certainty as the mainstay; she has been wrapped up and protected on all sides, but is nevertheless coloured by fear to such an extent that she looks upon fear as part of human nature. She marries aristocratic Alexander, who is like a fish in water when dealing with perilous, inconstant and unforeseeable life—therefore he does not know the meaning of fear. Alexander derives much enjoyment from gambling and is quite happy—like Babette—to stake all his money, this being the concrete image of his willingness to risk everything. This sounds “really uncanny to Jensine's ears”, as her “debts were an abomination”13—but in the tale's wider balance of accounts the uncanny is naturally a plus.

On honeymoon in Norway, Jensine tries to instil fear in her husband by behaving recklessly when they walk in the mountains, but this just makes Alexander delight in his wife; he considers the surprising and unpredictable to be important aspects of female nature, and her behaviour tells him that she is on her way over into his aristocratic world. The symbolism in the wild Norwegian highlands leaves no doubt about the passion with which Jensine must become conversant. The central question in the tale is whether Jensine is too powerfully influenced by her environment to achieve the freedom that Alexander represents. She undergoes a crisis of identity, which reaches a climax when it is apparent that she is possibly pregnant. There is deliverance in this, and it can be interpreted as a sign that she has accepted Alexander's world, but it remains uncertain if her childhood milieu has completely released its grip on her. Thus, at the end, we have Jensine and Alexander watching Jensine's aunt approaching along the street, carrying flowers from Jensine's father's garden: “Each from their window, the husband and wife, looked down into the street.”14 It is left open as to whether Jensine and Alexander go their separate ways, or if they remain husband and wife.

A completely different interpretation of Alexander's role is to be found in Diana's Revenge—two lines in Isak Dinesen's authorship (1981) by Marianne Juhl and Bo Hakon Jørgensen, in which he is seen as hampering Jensine in her attempt to break away from her bourgeois milieu: “Alexander is no support to Jensine in this matter.”15 He is shallow and irresponsible and incapable of satisfying Jensine's erotic needs: “When he is unable to feel anxiety or be afraid of anything it is likely that his emotional life too is restricted, so that he can feel neither violent joy nor passionate love.”16Diana's Revenge reasons that Alexander and Jensine end up completely detached from one another. Their marriage means a “human and personal reduction”17 for Jensine, and thus Alexander is an obstruction to her autonomy—meaning that she has to separate herself from him. Such an interpretation completely disregards the enormous positive importance of the aristocratic culture to the whole of Karen Blixen's canon, and is most evident in the opinion of Diana's Revenge that Alexander's fearlessness is synonymous with emotional callousness. On the contrary, Karen Blixen's works see fearlessness as a sure sign that the whole gamut of emotions is preserved by virtue of unfettered and natural fulfilment—fearlessness is a decidedly positive factor. That it is possible to talk of a curtailment of the individual in Jensine's case is because she opens herself up to the impersonal, which is the basis of the aristocratic culture. Should the couple separate, it is not Alexander who is the villain, but exclusively the poisoning of a bourgeois milieu.

In “The Heroine” we are not presented with a woman in the process of development; Heloise is a sum of her parts from the outset, and this cannot be meddled with—inasmuch as she would not hesitate to pay with her life in order to preserve her integrity. Her ‘wholeness’ is disclosed via two men's different views of her. Lamond, a theologian, lives a secluded, bookish life with scholarship and rational understanding as guiding principles; he is representative of England. To him, Heloise could have been taken straight out of an art gallery; she is the ideal woman, above all worldly concerns. Lamond's counter-image is a German colonel who personifies his country's instinctive vitality—he sees in Heloise a flesh and blood woman, sensuality in person. Heloise enlightens them both about their one-sidedness; she is “an embodiment of ancient France”18 and thus the ideal and the reality, spirit and body, in perfect harmony.

Heloise is a true aristocrat, which she also demonstrates by embodying the concepts of courage and honour. Following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the German colonel holds Lamond, Heloise and other refugees as prisoners in a hotel. He makes Heloise a proposal: she can secure release for herself and the others by coming to him dressed like the goddess Venus. But Heloise would rather lose her life than her honour. Instead of executing them, the colonel releases the prisoners, and he rewards Heloise with roses and a dedication—“To a heroine”19—demonstrating that her action has made him see the other side of her, the ideal woman. In other words: there is freedom in Heloise's doubleness. Lamond does not comprehend this doubleness until many years later when he encounters Heloise again in a Parisian music hall, where she has worked as a naked dancer since long before they first met. Lamond and the colonel are not just two individuals, but also the unrealised sides of one another, revealed by virtue of Heloise.

Both Lamond and the colonel harbour strong feelings for Heloise—the tale is also a love story with reference to the famous twelfth-century romance between Abélard and Heloise, which has survived in the Letters of Abelard and Heloise. However, Karen Blixen gleaned more comprehensive and direct inspiration from two short stories: the Danish writer Steen Steensen Blicher's “Den sachsiske Bondekrig” (The Saxon Peasant War, 1827) and the German author Jakob Wassermann's Golowin (1920). She writes about these stories in a letter from Africa:

“In one of Blicher's stories, the heroine is given the choice between her young brother's life and the sacrifice of her (womanly) honor to the enemy commander, and neither she nor her brother entertain a moment's doubt:—it is his life that must be sacrificed. In a modern story,—by Jakob Wassermann,—a Bolshevik officer gives a young lady the promise of sparing a company of refugees if she will come to his quarters at night; she hesitates no longer than Blicher's brother and sister, but replies: ‘Yes, of course,—here I am.’ I think there are very few young women whose conscience and moral sense would not bid them give the same answer. For they no longer feel their ‘womanliness’ to be the most sacred element in their nature, and the concept of ‘womanly honor’ is of no importance to them, hardly any meaning.—Likewise Blicher's young nobleman would have chosen death rather than hang his escutcheon round the neck of a pig, while I am pretty sure that nowadays no nobleman in the world,—anyway in any of the civilized countries,—would not be prepared to do so with a perfectly good conscience if thereby he could save his friends' lives, or even his own …”20

“The Heroine” is written in the spirit of Blicher as a revolt against the modern perspective, which only functions on the purely particularised level and ignores supra-individual ideals and values. Heloise demonstrates what has been lost: the strength to be drawn from underlying powers. Perhaps as an ironic salute to Wassermann, who lets his characters get off cheaply, there is a small station in “The Heroine” called Wasserbillig (literally: water-cheap).

“Alkmene” is probably the grimmest of all Karen Blixen's tales, relentlessly pursuing the story of how a parsonage milieu crushes the life out of an unspoilt child of nature. The story has, like many others, “Shakespeare's inspirational force”21—the source here being the dreadfully maltreated Perdita in The Winter's Tale. But the first-person narrator, Vilhelm, who professes neutrality but nonetheless, with his passivity and irresponsibility, is party to the sad fate he recounts, is clearly inspired by Steen Steensen Blicher.

Jens Jespersen ekes a living as a parson in a remote area of Jutland—this being a manifestation of his cowardly abandonment of youthful dreams of becoming a poet, which he now wards off by referring to them as having been an illness. As a young man, he had written an epic entitled “Alkmene”, and by abandoning the child Alkmene he repeats the renunciation he made in his youth. The parson marries Gertrud, who is good-natured and cheerful, but her spontaneity is soon subdued at the parsonage—the couple's childlessness speaking for itself. Therefore they adopt Alkmene, who is of ambiguous parentage—but this uncertainty stands in positive contrast to the security in which she is enveloped. Nevertheless, there can be no denying her aristocratic descent—underscored by her sense of well-being when wearing a dress that had belonged to the deceased lady of the manor. Alkmene is by nature fearless and extravagant; this characterisation however, is simply an indication of the enormous resources she has at her disposal. She is heir to a huge fortune that she has known about all her life—this is also an image of the riches she has inside. The inheritance is thought to have come from a demonic source and is thus on a par with the lottery winnings in “Babette's Feast”, which are called “ungodly affairs” and are Babette's ‘capital’.

Out in the countryside, Alkmene and Vilhelm are unfettered and have a deep understanding of one another, but this is suspended the moment they step into the parsonage. Karen Blixen quite likely had a novel she admired in mind: Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), in which Catherine and the foundling Heathcliff are symbiotically in their element in the imposing wild landscape, but are separated and stifled in the civilised interior of Thrushcross Grange. The fact that the parsonage smothers Alkmene is demonstrated in the gradual erosion of her Græcism. The parson and his wife shorten the name Alkmene, from Greek mythology meaning “woman of might”, to Mene, which in “The Book of Daniel” means: “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.”22 In “The Book of Daniel” this is the judgment pronounced on the non-believing Belshazzar, but it is also the writing on the wall for Alkmene! By the time Alkmene reaches the age at which she should be confirmed, the parson completely stops the lessons in Greek mythology that she loved, and the connection is definitively severed.

One by one, Gertrud corrects Alkmene's ‘flaws’, and the girl becomes acquainted with fear. She is not allowed to have girlfriends, and Gertrud is loath to let her out of her sight; this also applies to the future, as Gertrude declares that, even were it the King's son, she would not allow anyone to marry Alkmene. The execution of a condemned man on the North Common in Copenhagen is a brutal symbol of Gertrud's ‘killing’ of Alkmene; if the means are formidable enough, a milieu can crush even the strongest individual. In a letter, Karen Blixen describes quite precisely this total envelopment: “for Alkmene there is the sinister aspect to the situation that, whilst all her surroundings are forcing her to go there, they at the same time act as if utterly ignorant of the existence of the Common.”23 The execution is also an image of Alkmene's desire for fatal vengeance on Gertrud. But Gertrud's death sentence has already been implemented, as in relation to Alkmene she has merely repeated the treatment she herself was subjected to by the parson. Alkmene has her revenge, however, by taking lifelessness to the point of madness—but therein lies Gertrud's definitive victory: the parson dies, and from then on, moving to an isolated sheep farm, she has Alkmene completely to herself. In addition, Alkmene becomes like a mother to Gertrud, who thus gains her adopted daughter's full attention. Their life on the sheep farm is a biting satire of bourgeois existence. Everything is scrupulously clean, but only the strictly necessary rooms are used; they live extremely frugally and work without rest, with the one objective of putting everything into the savings bank.

Karen Blixen's preoccupation with being lost in or fulfilling dreams is brought into full play in “The Dreaming Child”. We are now in Copenhagen in the mid-1800s. Jens spends the first six years of his life in a backyard of a slum neighbourhood; he grows up with his dreamworld, which is apparently made real when he is adopted by a ‘grand’ young couple, Jakob and Emilie Vandamm—who are able to at last realise their dream of having a child. Emilie finds herself in a situation similar to that of Lucie Vandamm in “The Hermits”, but the outcome is different. Jakob and Emilie's childlessness is the result of Emilie's unconsummated love for one Charlie Dreyer, which she cannot get over, and therefore she is incapable of giving herself to Jakob. Charlie symbolises Emilie's over-romantic expectations of marriage, but his death is also a representation of how the institution of marriage destroys the romantic—although Jakob and his Madonna-picture of Emilie bears part of the responsibility for their childlessness.

Their adopted son, Jens, dies—a sad event demonstrating what can happen if one abandons oneself to dreams as, despite going to live with Jakob and Emilie, Jens cannot move beyond his dreamworld. His fate is particularised in a metaphor taken from nature: “There are some young trees which, when they are planted have the root twisted, and will never take hold in the soil. They may shoot out a profusion of leaves and flowers, but they must soon die. Such was the way with Jens. He had sent out his small branches upwards and to the sides, had fared excellently of the chameleon's dish and eaten air, promise-crammed, and the while he had forgotten to put out roots.”24 The same image is used in “The Dreamers”, where dreams that are not nourished by substance in reality are bluntly called: “the well-mannered people's way of committing suicide.”25

But, at the same time, Jens tells us something about Jakob and Emilie; he symbolises the ideal notion that keeps Jakob at a distance from Emilie and the dreamworld in which she is close to abandoning herself and her marriage. On this level, Jens is a child of Emilie and Charlie, as Emilie acknowledges, but seeing Jens' fate makes Emilie realise the unreality in the dream of lost love for Charlie, just as Jakob sees through fixation on the ideal. On the symbolic level, Jens' death is therefore positive: it shows that the oblivious dreamworld and the unadulterated ideal perish in Emilie and Jakob. Jens' death means that Emilie and Jakob find one another, and in so doing the dream of love returns, but now in a realistic form. “The Dreaming Child” thus both challenges abandonment to dreams and is a story about realising one's dreams. …



Karen Blixen's tales have, of course, often been the subject of interpretative readings; in 1950, for example, there were radio broadcasts of both Bodil Ipsen reading “Babette's Feast” and Ingeborg Brams reading “The Ghost Horses”.26 “The Ghost Horses” was originally written for an American magazine (Ladies' Home Journal), which published it in 1951. It was later published as a book in Denmark in 1955. It is a singular tale, characterised by an elegant simplicity, under which there lies considerable depth.

The central character is a little girl, Nonny; she is six years old, as were Jens in “The Dreaming Child” and Alkmene. Karen Blixen often introduces us to her child characters at that age, when the purely ingenuous stage is over and conflict is generated when children encounter expectations from an adult world that has lost the enriching attachment to the ‘childlike’, in the best sense of the word. Nonny's playmate, Billy, has died; his death demonstrates the harsh reality that the adult world is fatally opposed to the playful world. Nonny's mother, for instance, is completely unaware of Billy's existence. Billy's death causes Nonny to become ill, and for the first time her mother takes care of her; but the one who is the cause of an illness cannot, of course, cure it. From a medical point of view, Nonny is completely healthy, because science is dryly rational and must consequently regard the loss of imagination as the transition to a normal condition.

Some family jewellery has a completely different value for Nonny than for the adults. Nonny and Billy found the jewellery in an old harness room above the garages that had once been stables, and the jewellery provided precious toys for the children, who transformed the pieces into ghost horses. The adults believe that the jewellery disappeared many years previously when a relation, the young mistress of the house at the time, ran away with her stable boy. What Nonny has right in front of her is, in other words, an item of lost value for her mother, who might wish for the return of the jewellery, but from completely materialistic motives.

The children's ghost horses are in direct contrast to a mechanical horse—the modern toy with which the adults try unsuccessfully to distract Nonny. In “On Mottoes of My Life”, Karen Blixen makes a comparison between old and modern toys, which goes straight to the essence of “The Ghost Horses”:

“Children of my day, even in great houses, had very little in the way of toys. Toy shops were almost unknown; modern mechanical playthings, which furnish their own activity, had hardly come into existence. One might, of course, buy oneself a hobbyhorse, but generally speaking an individually selected knotty stick from the woods, upon which imagination might work freely, was dearer to the heart. We were not observers, as children today seem to be from birth, of their own accord; and not utilizers, as they are brought up to be; we were creators. Our knotty stick, for all working purposes, in appearance and as far as actual horsepower went, came nearer to Bucephalus and eight-hoofed Sleipner, or to Pegasus himself, than any magnificently decorated horse from a smart store.”27

The mechanical toy is the auxiliary arm of a modern era with a hostility towards imagination and the free exercise of creation that reaches right into the world of children, cutting off the roots of life. In “The Ghost Horses”, this violation of childhood is also an image of the technical era's disregard for the true values of life—thus Nonny is protecting herself from becoming “the child of the motor age”.28 At the same time, the child's world is the imaginative past from which the present has removed itself. The critique of the modern era is the same as in The Revenge of Truth—but “The Ghost Horses” takes a more meticulous approach.

Nonny is separated from her mother, and her restoration to health is entrusted to Nonny's uncle, Cedric. He is a painter, and “The Ghost Horses” is that “Portrait of a Child29 which he paints bit by bit as he becomes better acquainted with Nonny's universe. Cedric demonstrates his special credentials for understanding the child by drawing imaginative pictures for her. He creates a mutual connection that rouses Nonny to acquaint him with what she shared with Billy. In the children's ability to create a unique universe out of old jewellery, Cedric encounters the true essence of art, which is subjugated under the yoke of a modern mentality that relates to reality as if to a prefabricated mechanical toy. Cedric realises the impoverishment of mere observation and reproduction of reality, by means of which art becomes sheer technique.

With Cedric, Nonny progresses to the point that she anticipates her approaching reunion with Billy. Thus there is hope that Nonny will grow up with her imagination intact, but the outcome could also be reunion in death, which indicates both Nonny's uncompromising perspective and the end of imagination.

In E. T. A. Hoffmann's tale “Das fremde Kind” (The Strange Child, 1817) the children Christlieb and Felix are in similar circumstances as Nonny, but in their case the ending is unambiguously happy. The children, who are brother and sister, have the forest as their wonderful fairy-tale playground. They are given some modern toys, but these only keep them away from the forest for a little while, and when they go back the new toys are destroyed by the forest. They meet an ally in the forest in the figure of the ‘strange’ child who is a boy and a girl at the same time and therefore both prince and princess in the realms of childhood and imagination; the strange child is a counterpart to Billy. Christlieb and Felix, however, have an adversary in their teacher, Magister Tinte, who personifies unadulterated, over-refined common sense and is a bitter enemy of play and nature. The strange child, and not Magister Tinte, wins the battle over them, because in this instance the parents are capable of relating to the children's situation and thus ensure that the strange child will live within them to the end of their days.



Karen Blixen worked for many years on the novel Albondocani, who as mentioned was originally one of the unpredictable ruler Haroun al Raschid's assumed names. Haroun al Raschid was Caliph in Baghdad and thus one of Muhammad's successors as spiritual and political leader. Haroun al Raschid appears in Thousand and One Nights, the character Karen Blixen aspired to in her novel. Albondocani was also intended to be in the style of Jules Romain's Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté (1932-46), a novel in 27 volumes. Albondocani was to be 600-900 pages long, have 100 characters and consist of approximately 115 stories, which, as in a cyclical novel, would be self-contained, but also interwoven.30 Not surprisingly she called it “a giant book31 and characterised it as “my fantastic novel”.32 Work on the book, however, progressed slowly, one reason being that she was also working on other collections: Anecdotes of Destiny, New Gothic Tales and New Winter's Tales. Frustrated by jumping from the one project to the other, she found a solution by collecting the finished tales for Albondocani, New Gothic Tales and New Winter's Tales in a single volume entitled Last Tales, which was published in 1957.33 She had not at that point abandoned her intention of completing Albondocani, but apart from the seven tales included in Last Tales, she later only wrote one more chapter of the novel, this being the tale “Second Meeting” (1961).34

In the New Winter's Tales section of Last Tales, a story entitled “A Country Tale” provides the best example of Karen Blixen's ability to write in a distinctly exciting manner. The story is about a young landowner, Eitel, who bears the guilt that his father, who died before Eitel was born, had once ordered a peasant, Linnert, to be tied to a timber-mare in the sun, where he died. Eitel's affiliation to his family line is further complicated when his former wet nurse, who is Linnert's daughter, tells him that he is actually her son. She alleges that she changed the master's baby for her own. The tale speaks subtly and without clarification both for and against the nurse's claim. The dubious aspect of her assertion also causes Eitel to question what actually happened between his father and Linnert—because it was the nurse who told him that story in the first place.

The responsibility for his father's action—which cannot be verified—and the sudden doubt about his affiliation to his family—master or peasant—turns Eitel's reality upside down and makes for an ambiguity that permeates the tale and raises many interesting questions. Family, social status, identity and perceptions of reality itself are the issues at stake.

Eitel has—like many of Karen Blixen's characters—lost his parents, and he is left in doubt about their identity. Furthermore, he has fathered a child who will grow up in the belief that someone else is her father, as the child's mother is a married woman whose husband believes himself to be the father. And the nurse has cast off her son, who must live his life without parents, only to learn that perhaps they are not the people he thought they were anyway. Doubt about parentage, as a symbol of emptiness and ambiguity of an existential, identity or social nature, is an age-old theme. Karen Blixen could have found inspiration as far back as the Odyssey, where Telemachus, searching for his father, says: “My mother says that I am his child; but I know not, for never yet did any man of himself know his own parentage.”35 Yes, even the gods can have doubts, as the goddess Eidothea shows when she says of the sea god Proteus: “He, they say, is my father that begat me.”36 In “A Country Tale” there is mention of Orestes, who kills his stepfather and his mother, thus avenging their murder of his father, Agamemnon. Orestes is a predecessor of Hamlet, who is subject to the same loss of a father and ensuing dilemma with a stepfather. Later on, in Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck (1884), the central character, whilst still believing in his status as father, is spoken of thus: “And there he sits, childlike and trusting, caught in this web of deceit—sharing his roof with a woman like that, never suspecting that what he calls his home is built upon a lie!”37 This leads naturally to Johan August Strindberg's The Father (1887), in which there is a scene where the Captain descends from the loft carrying a pile of books all dealing with doubt about paternity—the Odyssey being on the top of the pile. Perhaps Karen Blixen was acknowledging inspiration from Strindberg in Eitel's other names, which are Johan August. In James Joyce's novel Ulysses (1922), which shares original Greek sources with Karen Blixen's works and similarly engages the eternal themes, the lack of a father is summed up: “if the father who has not a son be not a father can the son who has not a father be a son?”38

Before the nurse tells Eitel that he is her son, he says: “I shall not, at the moment when I have become, truthfully, what I am, in cutting off my roots, turn myself into a shadow, into nothingness.”39 But this is exactly what happens, and in the description of the ambiguity in which he is subsequently embroiled Karen Blixen takes up the threads of her predecessors in an impeccable manner.

Among the other themes in “A Country Tale” is the same relationship between nobility and peasant that we found in “Sorrow-Acre”—Eitel and the nurse's son are thus closely united in the entanglement. And at the same time, the nurse's son—who is a murderer and a wild animal—is another side of Eitel with which he has to come to terms, just as Lise is reconciled with the sheep thief in “The Ring”.


  1. Out of Africa, Penguin Books, 1954, p. 30.

  2. Seven Gothic Tales, p. 170.

  3. Aage Henriksen, De ubændige [The Indomitable], Gyldendal, Copenhagen, 1984, p. 87.

  4. Winter's Tales, Penguin 1983, p. 178.

  5. De ubændige [The Indomitable], pp. 83-8.

  6. Winter's Tales, p. 175.

  7. Ibid., p. 177.

  8. Ibid., p. 196.

  9. Ibid., pp. 196-8.

  10. Seven Gothic Tales, pp. 171-2.

  11. In “On Mottoes of My Life” Karen Blixen writes: “As I look from the one age to the other, I find this particular idea—the word, le mot, and the motto—to be one of the phenomena of life which in the course of time have most decidedly come down in value. To my contemporaries the name was the thing or the man; it was even the finest part of a man, and you praised him when you said that he was as good as his word.” Daguerrotypes and Other Essays, p. 1.

  12. Winter's Tales, p. 178.

  13. Ibid., p. 39.

  14. Ibid., p. 49.

  15. Odense University Press, translated by Anne Born, 1985, p. 94. (Dianas Hævn—to spor i Karen Blixens forfatterskab, Odense Universitetsforlag, 1981.)

  16. Ibid., p. 94.

  17. Ibid., p. 96.

  18. Winter's Tales, p. 70.

  19. Ibid., p. 75.

  20. Letters from Africa, 1914-1931, pp. 336-7, letter dated 13/1-1928.

  21. Karen Blixen in Denmark: Letters, 1931-62, vol. 1, p. 300, letter dated 15/7-1939. This is how Karen Blixen puts it whilst working on “Alkmene”, but there is also direct reference to Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in the story itself.

  22. “The Book of Daniel”, ch. 5, v. 26.

  23. Karen Blixen in Denmark: Letters, 1931-62, vol. 2, p. 243, letter dated 18/9-1954.

  24. Winter's Tales, p. 98.

  25. Seven Gothic Tales, p. 241.

  26. Bodil Ipsen and Ingeborg Brams were leading Danish actresses. Bodil Ipsen's reading of “Babette's Feast” is available on a gramophone recording (Danica DLP 8128) and audio cassette tape (Danica DMC 8128).

  27. Daguerreotypes and Other Essays, Heinemann, London, p. 2.

  28. “The Ghost Horses”, in Carnival—Entertainments and Posthumous Tales, publ. Heinemann, London 1978, p. 261.

  29. Ibid., p. 251.

  30. Karen Blixen in Denmark: Letters, 1931-62, vol. 2, p. 120, p. 160 and p. 270, letters dated 19/12-1952, 25/10-1953 and 1/3-1955.

  31. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 329, letter dated 25/9-1956.

  32. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 543, letter dated 29/12-1949.

  33. Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 160-1, letter dated 25/10-1953.

  34. “Second Meeting” is in Carnival - Entertainments and Posthumous Tales.

  35. The Odyssey, translated by A. T. Murray, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts/William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1974, vol. 1, p. 19.

  36. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 135.

  37. Henrik Ibsen, The Wild Duck, translated by Michael Meyer, publ. Methuen & Co Ltd, London, 1968, p. 44.

  38. James Joyce, Ulysses, Penguin Books/The Bodley Head, 1969/1984, p. 208.

  39. Last Tales, Penguin Books, 1986, p. 200.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 267


Gillen, Francis X. “Isak Dinesen with a Contemporary Social Conscience: Harold Pinter's Film Adaptation of ‘The Dreaming Child’.” In The Films of Harold Pinter, edited by Steven H. Gale, pp. 147-58. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Discusses Harold Pinter's film adaptation of Dinesen's “The Dreaming Child.”

Mucci, Clara. “The Blank Page as a Lacanian ‘Object a’: Silence, Women's Words, Desire and Interpretation between Literature and Psychology.” Literature and Psychology 38, no. 4 (1992): 23-35.

Utilizes the metaphor of the blank and applies an unconventional psychoanalytical reading to Freud's Dora and Dinesen's “The Blank Page.”

Schleifer, Ronald. “Writhing Nets and Goodly Pearls: The Postmodern Bible, Temporal Collaboration, and Storytelling.” The Centennial Review 40, no. 2 (spring 1996): 385-99.

Examines the “nature of postmodernity in relation to time and collaboration” in The Postmodern Bible, Walter Benjamin's essay “The Storyteller,” Stephen Moore's analysis of Jacques Lacan, and Dinesen's “The Pearls.”

Additional coverage of Dinesen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 2, 25-28; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 22, 50; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 10, 29, 95; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 214; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; European Writers, Vol. 10; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 9; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 6, 13; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 7; Something About the Author, Vol. 44; and World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2.

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Isak Dinesen World Literature Analysis


Dinesen, Isak (1885 - 1962)